February 1st, 2006
I recently (as in five minutes ago) gave up on my own workstation habit.
For a while, I had a decent collection. I've had some SGI Indigos, some Sun SPARCStations, an SGI Indy R5K, a few Macs (not really workstations, but you know what I mean), and a NeXTStation. Not bad for a dorm room. I was also planning on getting an SGI 540 (one of the finest Intel-based workstations ever made, imho), some Acorn boxes, and maybe an Alpha-based box or two.
I ended up selling them all to help pay for my wedding last November, and since then I've had these intermittent midnight eBay-visiting spasms where I drool and nearly come to tears over some particular dream machine.
I think that's all over, though. I've never liked SCSI, and my luck with it in used machines has been atrocious -- getting eBay sellers to provide me with hard drives with correct connectors, shabby SCSI controllers, having to purchase terminators, et cetera. In addition, worrying about the little things (like the SGI Indy batteries, no longer in production, that will make your machine completely useless once they are depleted) really takes it out of me. Add to that general component failure (for instance, the difficulty of replacing the CRT in a NeXTStation monitor when the shit boils off completely) and the evolution of standards (dammit, where's that BNC hub?), and it's just too much to handle.
When I was younger and more naïve, I had a fantasy of maintaining a museum of running machines. I've gradually realized that it's just that -- a fantasy -- and my beautiful SGI Indy, my exquisite NeXTStation, and all of the other machines I loved would meet their eventual fates no matter what I did.
I could pull out all the stops trying to keep them running -- ending up with a collection of Frankenstein boxes. Or I could just let them die, not replacing hardware components that were no longer available. Or I could leave them on a shelf, not running, in the vague hopes that I'll actually meet someone who shares my passion for old machines and would like to hear the beautiful Indigo2 startup chime. So far, no one who has seen any of my machines has registered anything but disinterest or amusement.
It's depressing and dismaying to me. It brings me to the point of tears to think about it. It combines two of my great passions -- computers and history -- and gives me a player position. "Yes, I have one of the finest-designed UNIX workstations ever built. This particular one was used in Area 51. The stickers are still there, note. It runs, too -- and look, you can do everything that you can do in OS X or Linux today. See? I just drag-n-dropped a file in order to attach it to an outgoing email. What? Oh, it was made in 1992. The sticker price was about $5,995...."
Jesus, it's depressing.
You know why I'll never give up? Because I'm a hopeless romantic.
Those systems were exceptional for their time. In each one of those systems, there's some "a-ha!" moment where some engineers realized how they were going to beat the limitations of the time. To ignore that and judge everything by the modern day is to ultimately consign all human efforts to the abyss. It is to take all art and declare it not just useless, but a waste of time. In this case, it especially isn't.
I don't have any fantasy of having a museum. That's for people better funded than I. All I want is a collection which will remind me of the giants whose shoulders I stand upon.
Incidentally -- one of my greatest triumphs -- the design of Ultimate's first filesystem came as I sat in bed and wondered what Gary Kildall would have done (he beats the hell out of Brian Boitano anyway).
To paraphrase an inscription on a collection of Jules Verne stories, don't lose the spirit which moved those systems. They propelled us to the present day.
Besides, the old stuff frequently runs better ; )
True. Reading on http://www.folklore.org/
(the creation of the Macintosh, written by the people who created it) has been fascinating -- I do it once every couple of months. The most interesting articles are when they have to solve a new problem. Although they don't tell how they do it (not that I'd understand), it's still fascinating.
For instance, creating the rounded rectangle primitive, or backporting the mouse to the Apple II and ensuring that the cursor doesn't flicker.
It's also cool to learn about how young idealistic hackers being controlled by bean counters (my favorite story involves said legume-trackers deciding that the more lines of code added per day, the higher the coder's efficiency -- until one vastly improved a section of code and wrote "-2000" on his log).
Or that a demo coded for the original Mac 128K had a couple hundred sprites bouncing smoothly around the screen at the same time. That blows my mind -- it's depressing to think about how much power we squander on software bloat because many coders no longer seem to feel the need to maximize efficiency, given the colossal levels of resources we now have...
At the same time, there's the looming tragedy in the background -- the Lisa. The history of the Macintosh is a series of obstacles (whether human or technological) overcome through resourcefulness. The Lisa is mentioned only as a comparison: "The Lisa team, at that time, was working on $ILL_FATED_EXPERIMENT." Some hard emotional moments come when the over-funded and micromanaged, struggling Lisa team realizes just how much more advanced the Mac team is, even with no bean counters, virtually no management, and little funding.
And that's just one machine -- the Mac 128K -- that I've never really had any interest in. NeXT must have similar stories -- working with Adobe, the magneto-optical drive fiasco, Jobs repainting the factory dozens of times to get the right shade of gray... and Silicon Graphics? That's a tragedy, right there. They got delisted from the NYSE last year because their stock is worth shit now. Bill Joy's days at Sun, discovering the SPARC processor. Or the tragedy of Amiga, the interesting RISC-PCs, et cetera.
I don't really mean, by using the term "museum," anything different from what you have. I don't want my NeXTStation behind glass, I mean. Basically, just a collection of the brightest stars. I have no desire for an Osbourne or Kaypro or even an original Apple I (not that I could afford it). I don't really want anything in chronological order or showing the development of the UNIX family tree or even one machine that dodeca-tuple boots all the versions of DOS and Windows and OS/2. I don't feel the need to have an SGI Indigo2 R4400 next to an SGI Indigo2 R4600, et cetera. I just want a few outstanding machines that I think best exemplified the abilities of the architects and programmers that seem to be such a rare breed nowadays.
You don't really want those systems. In fact, you feel an overpowering need to give them a good home. Why don't you send them to me?