The Dilettante

2019.10.06

Nathan Thompson

People often wonder how I got my start in technology. I always say, "By necessity," as I was never a big "computer" guy until the year 2000. Yet, if you wanted to talk 1990s video game systems, I was all about it. Sprites, colors, color palettes, parallax, music (chiptunes vs Red Book audio), polygons, numbers of polygons, shape (triangles vs quadrilaterals), texture mapping, Gouraud shading, cartridges vs optical discs, add-on systems vs add-on chips, etc. Yet, eventually that focus on the love of gaming from the late 1980s{1} through the 1990s, shifted to computers, then portable music players, routers, tablets, phones, etc. The whole gamut really.


Bottom line, everything I have learned is self taught. While clearly remaining short of mastery, I feel like my breadth of experience helps patches over the lack of depth in any one subject. That is what I keep telling myself anyway, Lyric Silvertongue Nathan Thompson is a perfectly proficient bard dabbler in adventure tech.{2}

{1} Read as 1989, the Sega Genesis was my first love.

{2} Character stats? Why, of course, CN he B16, had to level up enough to get a disintegrate spell after all.

The List

Having used more than my fair share of operating systems over the years has granted me an interesting power user (read, as just enough knowledge to be dangerous) perspective.

The usual suspects like:

    1. Mac OS
    2. DOS (FreeDOS is my jam!)
    3. Windows
      • Both NT based and prior consumer versions)
    4. Various Linux distributions

Also smaller user base systems like:

That's just on desktops! For phones and tablets, there have been even more:

Okay, that was a long, long, long list, still likely incomplete at that, just to say, "Hey, I like to dabble with systems."

History

TI-99/4A

It all started for me when my father brought home a TI-99/4A. The computer did not really contain an operating system. From memory (mine, not the systems), if you booted the system without a cartridge inserted{3}, you could reach the basic interpreter and start poking around. Wikipedia insists this version of Basic is called TI Basic. As noted, most of my use case was very much akin to an old school game console. I would pop in cartridges to run games and other software. Might as well been an Atari 2600 Jr, NES, or Sega Genesis. My favorite software for the TI-99/4A was Parsec. That was a heck of a shooter!

{3} All the software I used came on cartridges, but there were also cassette tape and floppy disk accessories.

TI-99/4A was a fun machine, but ultimately doomed by strict third party licensing terms (TI pretty much wanted it all to themselves) and a money losing price war.

Rama & Musée Bolo CC BY-SA 2.0 fr

Compaq Portable


From that humble beginning, my first "real PC", as in one that sported an actual operating system, was a Compaq Portable running DOS. My mother's employer allowed her to bring it home as a part of their continuing higher education initiative.


That dual 5 1/4 floppy system{4} worked well for the next few years. While the primary use case was for my mother to be able to finish her degree, I got time with the Portable as well, mostly using the system for a word processor{5}, a handful of games{6}, and a PrintShop Pro like app, which could have been actual PrintShop Pro.

{4} That is correct, no hard drive.

{5} Having the foggiest which one at this point, possibly Corel WordPerfect? WordStar? MS Word? No idea.

{6} Did Defender of the Crown run in monochrome mode? I know there were some graphical games played on the system, besides text only ones like Sleuth and Zork.

A Compaq Portable, just a reminder, the keyboard folded into the screen area and the whole thing became a suitcase sized luggable.

Tiziano Garuti (1000Bit) graciously provided the image as public domain.

Classic Mac OS

This all changed circa 1992 when it was time to get a new computer and my father insisted upon a Macintosh.

  • "It was better for education."
  • "It was easier to use."
  • "The integration of hardware and software makes for a superior experience."
  • "Mouse is a standard feature."

Okay, okay, I get it, as my dad had started working at a non profit which was either completely a Mac shop or ninety plus percent. Of course, being a kid still, all I truly wanted was a system that allowed me to play all those cool computer games my friend Chris had on his computer.


For any faults the classic Mac OS might have (cooperative multitasking, lack of memory protection, and years of features added as spaghetti code), my dad was not incorrect, even if he abandoned me in Macland and migrated to Windowsville by 1997 or so.{7} The Mac truly was an interesting device, briefly owning a Mac Classic II before upgrading to an LC II (yay color!). The LC II was hobbled in many ways, 32-bit CPU on 16-bit databus, with a limit of 10 MB RAM{8}, but it was a color computer and technically expandable via the LC PDS slot. I ended up adding an Ethernet card to it in the mids 2000s!


After the LC II, I jumped to a Power Mac 6100{9} a few years later, and then a Snow iMac DV SE in late 2000. That last Mac was THE big jump for me in computing. While Mac OS 9 may have been imperfect, I spent so much time learning about the system. Featuring 256MB RAM and a 30GB hard drive, it sure felt like I could throw anything I wanted onto that iMac. Yes, laughable now, but it was a big deal for me. 500 MHz G3? Yeah, that was a crazy bit of power.

{7} To be fair, NT was a game changer for Microsoft. Eventually Windows 2000 came out and was quite possible the best operating system out at that time. Sorry Mac OS 9 and the OS X Server.

{8} Even if you have 12MB RAM installed, a pair of 4 MB 30-pin SIMMs augmenting the 4MB onboard memory, you still only have 10MB RAM. Yeah, Apple design folks. Courageous.

{9} This page is The, with a capital T, resource for everything Power Mac 6100. If I had known my boot problems were caused by a dead pram battery, I would have likely not jumped to the iMac. Seriously, as little as I know now, I knew absolutely nothing before.

Mac Classic II was a cute little box.

Courtesy the All About Apple museum official web site CC BY-SA 3.0

The Mac LC II was unnecessarily crippled by questionable design compromises.

All About Apple museum official web site CC BY-SA 3.0

Mac OS X

By 2003, I was ready to make the jump to Mac OS X. Deciding it was better to not be on the cutting edge of a rapidly evolving operating system, I opted to pick up a discounted Jaguar 10.2 en lieu of the just released 10.3 Panther. My theory proved correct when FW800 users were losing data on certain drives with certain Oxford chipsets.


My upgrade schedule for the next few years was set, as I steadfastly stayed behind the curve until Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard was released. Now remind me about kernel panics and Internet access being blocked with parental controls enabled on 10.5 and I will tell you my choice to become an early adopter proved unwise. Enough so, I actually went back to using Tiger for a few months!


To rewind a bit, I went through the early to mid 2000s as an avid Mac collector, my spree introducing me to close to 20 different Macs. Ranging from 68K Macs, PowerPC Macs running the classic Mac OS, PowerPC Macs running Mac OS X{10}, and then a couple different Intel Macs by 2007. All this accumulated knowledge allowed me to write briefly for Low End Mac and the now deceased AppleSwitcher Blog. I bought more Intel Macs over the years, but grew weary of the Apple ecosystem, especially post iPhone. I made it through 10.6 Snow Leopard and even upgraded to 10.7 Lion{11}


Mac OS X was a fantastic upgrade over the traditional Mac OS, better multitasking with the addition of memory protection bringing more stability the obvious gains in the switch, but do not sleep on PDF integration into the system (Quartz being an extension of Display PostScript from the NeXT days). Yet, the luster eventually wore off, partly on account of Mac OS X sometimes being just as buggy as other software, partly because Mac hardware was silly expensive, and partly because even when I had an all Apple workflows (Apple router, Apple computer, even Apple consumer electronic device), there were still the types of problems one associates with mixing and matching components from separately sourced vendors. The "just works" myth wore thin when things did not actually "just work". There were political reasons I fell out of love with Apple too. Political in the software and business sense. Ecosystems are fine, walled gardens without the ability to opt out are not. It felt increasingly as if we were on Apple's upgrade treadmill designed to goose their profit margins and revenue, instead of adoring users who genuinely wanted to engage the platform. Feeling trapped by my reliance on Apple solutions, it was time for a change.


Why do I insist upon using archaic naming schemes for macOS née OS X née Mac OS X née OS X Server née Mac OS née System…wow, that is a mouth full to say finger dance to type?{12} To be fair, when I used macOS, it was still called Mac OS X, 10.7 was the last version before the rebranding dropped Mac and the system came to be called OS X (RIP Mac). Which stuck around through 10.11, when the system regained Mac (Hallelujah, we have been reborn!), errr, well, mac with 10.12 and now we are stuck with the idiotically capitalized macOS.

{10} Remember XPostFacto? Fantastic software, amazing software, ingenious software, as it allowed me to run Mac OS X even on pre G3 PowerPC Macs.

{11} Largely a terrible release and as the last officially supported version of OS X for a slew of Macs, Lion made for a poor swansong. Time Machine had some nice improvements, but I loathed pretty much everything else about Lion.

{12} I get some kudos for carrying this joke to fruition, no?

Linux

If I desired brevity, ha, you have read this far, clearly I do not, but humor me, if succinctness was the goal, this section could read:

    • From 2004 until 2015, mostly a story of Ubuntu and its derivatives.
    • From 2015 onward, mostly a story of Arch distros with a side of Ubuntu based Elementary OS (for more information regarding Elementary's release history).

Yet, and you all thought escape was near, evil laugh commencing, sadly, no, so let me dig a little deeper.


My father told me about BeOS and Linux around 1999, and my mind was blown. "Wait, there are still computing options besides Mac OS and Windows?!!?" BeOS was busy swirling down the drain, Jean-Louis Gassée having never met something he could not bury with hubris.{13} Linux however, now that was a rising star. At the time, I sadly realized while Linux was eventually ported to just about everything (stealing "It runs on a toaster" crown from NetBSD), Mac hardware was hardly a first class citizen for Linux. Whilst not the first concern for most distros, there were still some decent ports for PowerPC hardware. Apple even had one with MkLinux.{14}


I zigged, then zagged in my hardware/software experience. Yeah, this might get a touch confusing. Let me fast forward for a moment. Linux was an echo in my mind, bouncing around, sometimes bubbling up to my consciousness, but Mac OS, in all its flavors, was my only computing platform of choice for five more years. That all changed October 2004.


Ubuntu, a new kid on the block, promising to put a friendly face on Linux in the same way Apple hammered its NextStep *nix core into a friendly shell of Mac OS GUI conventions. Taking the stable, reliable, perfectly acceptable system that was Debian onto a six month cadence, synchronizing Ubuntu with Gnome releases. As Gnome was the original desktop environment offered by Ubuntu, this all made sense.{15}


While others had attempted the task of making Linux more user friendly prior to Canonical, there were key differences settings Ubuntu apart from earlier efforts. Oh yeah, you know any opportunity to hit my readers with a list:

  • While other desktop environments could be installed, Ubuntu originally settled on Gnome as the official one.
  • As mentioned, reliable six month release schedule allowing users to plan their upgrade schedule. Although, this did eventually give way to the occasional LTS releases which were supported for longer periods of time.
  • It was not uncommon for distros focusing on the average user (Lindows/Linspire was a prime example) to require a monetary payment for convenience, but Mark Shuttleworth's deep pockets certainly help defray the startup costs to get Ubuntu running and kept access free for users.
  • In fact, Ubuntu had a program for the first several years to ship free installer discs to their users. In 2004, not everyone had a broadband connection, myself being a data point proving this fact. Getting CDs mailed out for free? Not even the cost of shipping? Yeah, that converted me really quickly. 600MB would take a very long time to download over dial-up.
  • Support for x86, x64, and PowerPC, and again, the ability to get freely shipped installers for each!
  • Sane defaults, with a good mixture of default packages. Office suite, email client, web browser, audio program, photo manipulation, etc. Usually only one of each program was installed to make it easier for users to get going.{16}
  • Did I mention Debian is a very solid system to build upon? APT and .deb were always easier for me in those days than whatever rpm based systems used.

Linux is known for choice, but sometimes offering too much choice at initial setup is confusing, especially to users new to the operating system. Sticking to well considered basics made it easier to get everything configured for new users. Alternatives were of course available in the package manager. The hope was new users would eventually figure out how to access them, but if not, they still had a very good out of box experience, and veteran users would have felt at home with apt or Synaptic anyway.


Instead of running Linux on my main Macs at the time (although I of course tested the Macs for Linux support), I lucked into a perfect test box. A friend was getting rid of his old PC, an NEC Ready 9883 desktop computer, so I figured, hey, why not? If memory serves, 333MHz Celeron with 64MB RAM (2 168-pin DIMM slots), two PCI slots, and one ISA slot. I loaded it up with scrounged parts, two 128 MB memory modules, one FW/USB 1.1 PCI card, one 10/100 Ethernet PCI card, and one SCSI ISA card. Ubuntu found all the hardware and everything worked marvelously well, certainly better than whatever decrepit version of Windows originally shipped on it. Truly, an eye opening experience.


Clearly never settled, I bounced back and forth between Mac OS X, Linux, even some classic Mac OS for a bit, before finally fazing out the last of my Mac devices and making the leap to Linux full time by late 2015. Prior to this time, Ubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Bodhi Linux, and Elementary OS each received extended runs as my go to installation. While my first instinct was to continue down the path of Ubuntu and derivatives, I was intrigued by the concept of a rolling release instead of the traditional big upgrade every so many months/years. I am not sure why I settled on Antergos, but the thought of a user friendly installer with sane defaults over the overly technical Arch installation{17} sounded just fine to me. Installing Arch from scratch is a great way to really learn about how the system fits together, but sometimes you just want to spend 30 minutes getting a system up and running. Antergos filled that niche admirably.


The concept of a rolling release is both a strength and weakness. Sure, never needing to upgrade your system as one big monolithic update is quite nice and having the newest packages all the time is swell too, but with the constant churn of updates, there is an increased chance of breakage. As such, while my client systems migrated to Antergos, my server stayed with some flavor of an Ubuntu LTS based system. Until September 2019, when a long standing, unpatched, suspend bug in the newest version of Elementary turned me off from that distro. Exploring other Ubuntu based OSes was fun, but issues with GDM and VNC meant I was unlikely to go that route, so here I am, currently, every one of my Linux systems is running something in the Arch family. My server, my personal system, and my mother's computer all migrated over to EndeavourOS after the shutdown of Antergos. A couple machines remaining on the latter, as Antergos was wise to follow the Arch package servers directly, which helped insulated their install base from major failure after closure of the Antergos project.

{13} Nah, it is all love, but poor Gassée truly had a tough run:

    1. Forced out of Apple for driving prices higher and higher while ignoring the mass market.
    2. Bounced back by helping to create something amazing with BeOS, only to pick a hobbyist processor (Hobbit anyone?), necessitating a switch to PowerPC.
    3. A failed negotiation with Apple to acquire Be Inc. in order to use BeOS as the basis of the next generation of Mac OS (priced too high, bit of a pattern here).
    4. Settled for "Plan B", yet another architecture switch, this time to Intel's x86.
    5. As desktop sales floundered, started giving away the Desktop OS and re-targeted to Internet appliances, a nascent market which failed to materialize.
    6. The corpse of Be Inc. sold to Palm, Inc.
    7. Becomes chairman of PalmSource, Inc. (Palm had split into two companies at this point, hardware and software, with the latter being handled by PalmSource).
    8. Palm refusing to use the version of Palm OS partially based on BeOS (Cobalt)
    9. Access acquires the corpse of PalmSource.

"Holy longest, barely related to parent topic footnote ever Batman!"

{14} Get this, for MkLinux Apple partnered with the Open Software Foundation to port Linux as a server on top of the Mach microkernel and it was all designed to run on PowerPC Macs. The strangest thing, the work began before Apple acquired Next! Which makes Mac OS X Apple's third attempt at making Macs run a *nix OS. First with A/UX, then with MkLinux, and finally Mac OS X. Also weird, that makes Mac OS X the second operating system from Apple to be based on the Mach microkernel. Mac OS X runs on XNU, a hybrid kernel originally based on Mach.

{15} More things change, the more they stay the same.

{16} Memory is hazy, 15 years have passed after all, but likely OpenOffice, Evolution, Firefox, Rhythmbox, and Gimp.

{17} Stated with the utmost love and respect as Arch is one of the pillars of modern day Linux computing. With all due respect to other projects, Debian, Ubuntu, Red Hat, Arch, Gentoo, and Suse are big ones.

Ubuntu 4.10 Wart Warthog Screenshot, quite brown.

Image by Altonbr, GPL

Ubuntu 19.04 Screenshot, less brown, more purple.

Image by JulianVilla26 CC BY-SA 4.0

Windows?

Well. where does Windows fit into this epic poem length tale of technology exploits? Not much to state really. My friends were mostly DOS users who become Windows users. My clients were the same.


Pretty much the only time I use Windows is when a client, family, or friend needs assistance on their system. Besides one work computer which I dual booted into Ubuntu, I have used one Windows computer for any length of time. Any guesses which one? I will wait…


If you guessed my daughter's Surface Pro 3, we have a winner!!!! The Surface has been great as a refurb, excepting a faulty hinge that failed relatively quickly. I added a case with a built-in kickstand to compensate and the original pen I bought died after two years, but I have experienced worse devices. My daughter adores it, and I can manage to poke around just fine. Running Windows 10, things are decent.


Windows 10 is much better than any older version I have been required to troubleshoot. Never used much before Windows 98, which was a bit of a mess honestly, 2000 was solid, XP was not my favorite, but as the longest lived of the mainstream Windows releases, could not escape clients with XP. Barely dabbled with Vista, but pretty much everything since then has been usable.


I will continue to keep abreast of Windows going forward, as it remains the big kahuna of desktop operating systems. It is what it is.

In the Wilderness

During this strange, marvelous, wonderful journey navigating the shifting tides of technology, which comprised a large portion of the 2000s, I somehow stumbled upon OSnews. Honestly, I have no real memory of what exactly took me there, but at the time, it was a hotbed of everything operating system, from personal computers to PDAs{18} to servers even.


Not just the big guys were covered, no, the site was positively a Library of Alexandria when it came to documenting the comings and goings of all things indie in the realm of operating systems. Not just posting links to articles, but reviews, treatises, and lively discussions from a vibrant community also made up the daily flow of information. While a shadow of itself in many ways today, the site definitely had a robust heyday in the aughts.


Nevertheless, via this excellent resource, I discovered so much information about alternative operating systems. From first learning about the fact BeOS had a successor in the works called Haiku, in addition to neat little desktop systems called Syllable and MenuetOS too, to embedded systems such as Contiki, there was never a system too small to be covered. HaikuOS, Syllable, and MenuetOS were fun to play around with while trying to figure out if I could rock one of these indie wonders as my day to day workstation. Narrator interjects, "He could not."


I would be remiss not to mention SkyOS, an open source, one man band(!) poised to be "THE NEXT BIG THING", before the project decided on closing the source, finally dying a long neglected death after the lone coder(!) decided a closed source indie system could not keep up with hardware changes. For a time, apparently mulling basing SkyOS on Linux or BSD going forward, the project sadly, but not unexpectedly faded into oblivion. While I would have loved to toy around with SkyOS, since the betas were paid access only (I know, right!??!), this tech enthusiast luckily was able to avoid the inevitable train wreck.

{18} For the kids, before smartphones were mainstream, or even much of a market at all, there were handheld computing devices, largely serving as an adjunct to our personal computers. Picture a cell phone without the phone part, usually anyway, often touchscreen, stylus generally required. Palm was a big player, Microsoft had their stab too, even Apple. In fact, the term Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) was originally coined by ex Apple CEO John Sculley.

There is no tribe, we are all one.

When people ask me why I often have such strong feelings about technology, I can honestly tell them I have played with a lot of tech over the years. I know what would be ideal for my use case, what limitations I can live with, and what issues are deal breakers. My philosophy tries to remain practical, but ideology will certainly come into play. There is simply no avoiding such concerns. Sorry.


Yet, and this is a big deal, please do not forget what truly matters as there are no tribes, we are one. Whatever tools we choose to use, all humanity is in this struggle together. We shall not get bogged down with such insignificant details as choice of computer or choice of phone or what have you. No, instead we should be working towards the same goals of continuous self betterment and societal adjustments allowing for such acts of self betterment. Going forward, just trying to keep a wee bit of love and respect shine under all these layers of well earned curmudgeonly grime.