Friday, April 01, 2005


More About The Good Old Days

I got quite a bit of email following my article on life in the "good old days" of proprietary mini computers, so I thought I'd do a bit more on the subject.

One thing it's worth pointing out is that back in the 80s the fact you and your colleagues at work or in college were all hooked up to the same computer promoted a real sense of community which has vanished now that your computer is a window on virtually the entire world.

You were all sharing the system, so what was happening in the computer center was of great importance to you all. Were they adding more disk space; more memory; maybe a second processor or were they upping the Async baud rate to the terminals from 1,200 to 4,800 baud? People would get together and bitch about the lousy response times or how long it took for the center staff to get your printouts from the high speed line printers and put them in your pigeon-hole.

The community feeling you got from all being in the same (digital) boat was one thing; the other thing was that you were at the mercy of the center staff. What did that mean? Today, you are in charge of your own computer which comes on when you want and on which you can work whenever you want, even on the train or plane. Imagine if, instead, there was a social retard in charge of your computer and you could only do what he allowed ......

The first computer I used was a Texas 990/10 at school in the early 1980s. It had 14 terminals, 4MB disk, 384K memory (K, not MB) and less processor power than an IPAQ. What was life like for we students? Well the guy in charge of this machine decided to make things fair by allocating time on the machine based on what class you were in. He divided the out-of-school hours in the week by the number of students and came up with a timetable which allowed every boy in the school fifteen minutes per week. As he proudly surveyed the empty terminal room, it never occurred to him that of all the boys in the school, probably only about ten were going to be interested in computers, the rest preferring to pass their spare time bullying weaker kids, shoplifting, playing sports, etc., etc. So of course in a lesson in how the world works, sucking up to this guy became the key to getting any time on the machine at all. Sometimes he would let you on; sometimes he wouldn't. So you spent a lot of time hanging around in the (half-empty) terminal room just in case. In a further lesson as to how the world works, there was of course a "core group" of four of this guy's favourites. They were allowed on whenever they wanted.

It gets better. The operating system on this machine had eight privilege levels so it was perfectly suited to the hierarchy of a British Private School. The core group were up on level 7, where they had Fortran, Assembler, a text editor and COBOL to play with. Most of the rest were on level 0 where they had 4K Basic to play with. I got Level 1 which meant I could have up to 32K memory in Basic. The core group at one time were commissioned to write a device driver for a special kind of terminal. This low-level shenanigans resulted in the computer crashing regularly, to the dismay of the level zero people who were using it at the time. But what did they matter, right?

I once asked the boss why he'd chosen to buy a TI minicomputer which was obscure even then. His response was that he looked at DEC PDP-11 minis, but the character set of the VT100 terminals they came with did not have 'true descenders'. (He had a lisp, so his exact words were 'twoo descenders'). The TI got round this by making lower case characters simply half-height capital letters. Well, that's one criteria for buying a computer, I suppose!

This guy was deeply religious and opposed to gambling. As a result, he had his favourites patch the image of the Basic interpreter to create a "restricted Basic" for use by the Level zero drones. This did not have keywords allowing cursor positioning so you could not develop elaborate screens; it also had the RND keyword removed so you could not generate random numbers to allow you to write games (because they might have an element of - gasp - gambling!).

The next computer I used was a PDP-11 at college. So confident was the computer manager in the security of the RSTS/E-v7.2-04 operating system that he locked all the manuals away and wouldn't let anybody see them. Further, he was so paranoid about somebody figuring out a backdoor into the system, he wouldn't let anybody on the machine unless he was physically present in the computer room. So when he went to lunch, everybody got kicked off. The bizarre thing was, only one user account was allocated per class, meaning every user already shared their account with about forty other people, making hacking a bit pointless.

So then on to university. Now I have very little respect for anybody working in academia. If you were any good, you'd be doing, not teaching, right? So it's my considered opinion that people who work in colleges are there because they are fucking useless at dealing with everyday life in the real world. (Ever visited the admin offices in a college? They are dead quiet, the most activity you'll find is a fly buzzing aimlessly about. But talk to the staff and they'll do nothing but complain about "stress" and "pressure". Yeah right, go and work at McDonalds and then tell me about stress and pressure!)

The boss of every computer center I worked in had his own pet obsession. At school it was ensuring lower case characters looked right. At college it was preventing people looking at the work of more than forty other people. And at University the obsession was preventing users sending messages to each other. Now this may sound strange to people who are used to IMs popping up all the time, but the manager of this computer center was obsessed with people using the primitive IM facility the Prime operating system offered. So the first thing that happened was they modified the operating system to disable the "MESSAGE" command. This didn't deter Computer Science students for long, as they discovered the Primos SMSG$ subroutine, which was the facility underlying the MESSAGE command, and wrote their own MESSAGE/CHAT programs. So of course the Subroutines reference guide got removed from the Computer Center. (But left in the main college library!). Next, the computer center wrote a batch program which, overnight, iterated through every user's account looking for any file containing the tell-tale SMSG$ string. Unfortunately they made it case-sensitive, so the programs got changed to call SmSg$.

So the upside of using Minicomputers and mainframes was you had an instant community which had something in common. The downside was it was usually discussing the latest incident of idiotic behaviour by the people running the machine.
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