Revisionist historians talk about how MS-DOS standardized computer operating systems and changed the industry. That’s very true. But what they’re ignoring is that there were standards before 1981, and the standards established in 1981 took a number of years to take hold.
I’ve had a couple of people ask me in the past couple of weeks how to break into the computer field. It was a tough question. I literally got into fixing these things because I couldn’t find a repair shop in St. Louis that I felt I could trust. So I started trying to fix them myself. I might break it beyond repair, but one time we had a repair done that cost more than replacing the unit outright would have cost. So what did I have to lose, right?
I took my Commodore 128 apart a few times. Usually it was for an upgrade, but once it was to clean the keyboard because keys weren’t working anymore. It was an adventure, and I had to learn how to solder first. My dad’s friend Norb taught me how. He was a building inspector. No wonder I still solder like a plumber, even to this day. So I de-soldered the 6 connections I had to in order to get into the keyboard, removed the dozens of tiny screws, cleaned up the printed circuit board, put it back together, re-soldered those connections, reassembled the computer, and held my breath. It worked. Cool. It didn’t impress the girls, but it saved me at least 50 bucks.
It was my uncle’s approach. I remember riding with him to an auto parts store once, then watching him work on his truck. “I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to cars,” I said.
“I don’t let that stop me,” he said. “I just have to do it.”
His truck cost more than any computer I’ve ever owned.
Later on, I got an upgrade ROM for my Amiga 2000. So my dad came home one day to find me hovering above my Amiga, which was sprawled across his OMT table. The cover was off, the power supply was out, and the drive cage was out, and there I was, slowly prying out a chip with a screwdriver. Dad gave me a nervous look. “You gonna be able to get that thing back together?” he asked me. “Sure,” I said. I didn’t tell him how many times I’d had it apart before. So he stood there and watched me as I finished extracting the chip, popped the new one into place, and re-installed the power supply and drive cage.
Eventually I got smart and realized I shouldn’t be experimenting on computers that I cared about. XT clones cost about 20 bucks when people wouldn’t just give them to you, so I got a couple. I ripped them apart, figured out how a computer was really put together, and reassembled them. And yes, I even took parts from one and put them in the other to see what would happen. I was pretty sure it would work. It did. Eventually I did something stupid (I don’t remember what anymore) and I killed at least one of those XT clones, but it wasn’t important. I’d learned a lot from them, and I was only out 20 bucks. That’s assuming I wasn’t given the thing outright–I don’t remember that detail anymore either.
I needed that skill the next year. I was living in a fraternity house, and the power supply died in the house computer. I knew enough by then to diagnose it, and I headed off to the local computer shop for parts. They didn’t have any power supplies that would fit, and the motherboard was nonstandard. But they had a lineup of barebones systems sprawled across the floor. A bare 386 cost about $200. I knew the rest of the system worked. So I talked it over with the treasurer, then came back with a house check and bought a 25 MHz 386DX. I took it home, popped the case on the house computer, pulled out the video card and all the I/O cards, installed them in the 386, and found the computer wouldn’t recognize the hard drive. We eventually worked through that one (it turned out we had one of the very few 8-bit IDE drives ever made, and that 8-bit controller did not get along with our 386 one bit) and we got a working system up and going.
By the time I graduated there were at least half a dozen guys in that house capable of doing that job. Times changed (swapping a motherboard was much more of an endeavor in 1993 than it was in 1997, because by then so many components that had once been discrete and configured by jumpers were integrated and configurable through the BIOS Setup), and I’d like to think most of them learned at least a little something from me.
That summer, I got a job selling computers. An opportunity arose when the store technician developed a difficulty showing up for work. They never fired the guy, but since he was only there half the time, I got to be the tech the other half. When he was there, I learned a lot from him.
The next school year, I got wind of a job opportunity on campus. The journalism department had a batch of 300 new IBM PC 330s and 350s. Every last one of them needed to be unboxed and upgraded with extra memory and a NIC, then plugged into the network, where one of the more experienced techs could do a push install of OS/2. I got the job, and I learned a ton from those guys. These are guys who had seen prototypes of the IBM PS/2 Model 80, and who occasionally had to whip out a soldering gun and make a change to the motherboard with an engineer from IBM on the phone. You bet they had a lot to teach me.
That part-time job eventually grew into a full-time job when those guys recognized that I was willing to work hard and willing and able to learn.
That approach worked really well for me. But I had the advantage of being young and being able to wait for opportunities and take them as they came. I also had the advantage of growing up with the things (the schools I went to had computers and taught computer classes, all the way back to when I was in the second grade) and messing with them for the majority of my life.
Realistically, I don’t think that approach would work for an adult with minimal computer skills and a family to support. Or at least it wouldn’t work on a quick timeframe. I’ve tried to teach 24-year-olds starting from ground zero how to do this. It didn’t work very well.
It’s a lot easier to teach someone how to write.
Padding your resume while meeting chicks. I got a phone call last night offering me just that. Seriously. I didn’t hang up or ask to be taken off the calling list because it was a friend. Not a male friend with a harebrained, sleazy scheme. It was Jeanne. So it was a female friend with a sleazy scheme.
I guess it helps to know Jeanne. She has the distinction of being the only female friend who’s ever offered to lend me a copy of Playboy. She said she bought it for the articles. One of those articles was an interview with some film hunk. Another article was an interview with Aimee Mann. But I think it was all a diabolical plot to see what it would take to get me to read a copy of Playboy in front of her.
This time, Jeanne’s plotting to get me to serve on a committee. She tells me there are virtually no males on the committee. “Sixty to one, Dave! With odds like those you can’t lose!” she said.
Didn’t I hear someone say that about the Red Sox earlier this year?
Let’s change the subject to something more cheerful. How about if I list my qualifications?
1. I’m a male of the species homo sapiens.
2. I’m a sucker for dogs that are smarter than
my former landlords my eighth grade science teacher the creeps who dated my sister when I was in college. That’s not every dog I’ve ever seen, but it’s a sizable percentage.
Gatermann says this is the most pathetic thing Jeanne’s ever asked me to do. And yes, Gatermann was there when Jeanne conned me into reading that magazine in front of her. (Yes, I gave in. I had to know what Aimee Mann had to say about Jewel, OK? And yes, her interview was just that–an interview.)
I serve on several committees, few of which work as well as I’d like, so it’s probably a good idea for me to participate, just to see if anyone else knows how to make a committee work right. The time commitment is small, so it just makes sense. In a sick sort of way.
Or maybe you can just say I’m easily finding ways to justify padding my resume while meeting women.
Harry Connick Jr. One of my coworkers pulled out a package he’d just received from Amazon. “I ordered two Harry Connick Jr. CDs,” he said. “This is what they sent.” He whipped out two CDs. They got that much right. But the CDs he received were (drum roll) The Bee Gees and LeAnn Rhimes.
He talked about how much he likes Harry Connick Jr. and how he has two tickets to go see him in some faraway city and he’s bringing a date.
“That’s what you think those tickets are for,” I said. Then, in my best concert-announcer voice, I said, “One night only! The Bee Gees! With very special guest LeAnn Rhimes!”
He glared at me.
Speaking of annoying… I got mail from someone who claims to have invented the “compressed ramdisk” technique I’ve talked about here and in my book, said something at least mildly disparaging about Andre Moreira–one of the other Windows-in-a-ramdisk pioneers–and he says he’s patented the technique, and wants me to download a trial copy of his software and link to it off my site.
I e-mailed him and asked him to set the record straight. It sounded to me like he’s claiming to have invented the compressed ramdisk–something CP/M owners were doing way back in 1984, if not earlier–and he wants free advertising from me for his commercial product.
Now, I could be wrong about that. I was wrong about OS/2 being the next big thing, after all. But if I’ve got the story more or less right, then the answer is no.
Now how did CP/M owners do compressed ramdisks? You’d just put your must-have utilities and applications into an .LBR file, then you’d run SQ on it to compress it. Then in profile.sub–the CP/M equivalent of autoexec.bat–you copied the archive to M: (CP/M’s built-in ramdisk) and then you decompressed it. In the days when applications were smaller than 64K, you could put your OS’ crucial utilities, plus WordStar and dBASE into a ramdisk and smoke all your neighbors who were running that newfangled MS-DOS.
I rediscovered the technique on my Commodore 128 (which was capable of running CP/M) in the late 1980s and thought I was really hot stuff with my 512K ramdisk.
Anyone who thinks the compressed ramdisk was invented in 1999 or 2000 either doesn’t remember his history or is smoking crack.
SCSI! SCSI vs. IDE is a long debate, almost a religious war, and it always has been. I remember seeing SCSI/IDE debates on BBSs in the early 1990s. Few argued that IDE was better than SCSI, though some did–but when you’re using an 8 MHz bus it doesn’t really matter–but IDE generally was less expensive than SCSI. The difference wasn’t always great. I remember seeing an IDE drive sell for $10 less than the SCSI version. The controller might have cost more, but back in the days when a 40-meg drive would set you back $300, a $10 premium for SCSI was nothing. To me, that settled the argument. It didn’t for everyone.
Today, IDE is cheap. Real cheap. A 20-gig drive costs you 50 bucks. A 7200-rpm 40-gig drive is all the drive many people will ever need, and it’s 99 bucks. And for simple computers, that’s great. If it fails, so what? Buy two drives and copy your important data over. At today’s prices you can afford to do that.
SCSI isn’t cheap. It’s hard to find a controller for less than $150, whereas IDE is included free on your motherboard. And if you find a SCSI drive for less than $150, it’s a closeout special. A 20-gig SCSI drive is likely to set you back $175-$200.
Superficially, the difference is philosophy. The IDE drive is designed to be cheap. Good enough to run Word, good enough to play Quake, quiet enough to not wake the baby, cheap enough to sell them by the warehouseful.
SCSI is designed for workstations and servers, where the only things that matter are speed, reliability, speed and speed. (Kind of like spam egg spam and spam in that Monty Python skit). If it costs $1,000 and requires a wind tunnel to cool it and ear protection to use it, who cares? It’s fast! So this is where you see extreme spindle rates like 10,000 and 15,000 RPM and seek times of 4.9 or even 3.9 milliseconds and disk caches of 4, 8, or even 16 MB. It’s also not uncommon to find a 5-year warranty.
In all fairness, I put my Quantum Atlas 10K3 in a Coolermaster cooler. It’s a big bay adapter that acts like a big heatsink and has a single fan, and it also dampens the sound. The setup is no louder than some of the 5400 RPM IDE drives Quantum was manufacturing in 1996-97.
OK, so what’s the practical difference?
IDE is faithful and dumb. You give it requests, it handles them in the order received. SCSI is smart. You send a bunch of read and write requests, and SCSI will figure out the optimal order to execute them in. That’s why you can defrag a SCSI drive while running other things without interrupting the defrag process very much. (Out of order execution is also one of the main things that makes modern CPUs faster than the 486.)
And if you’re running multiple devices, only one IDE device can talk at a time. SCSI devices can talk until you run out of bandwidth. So 160 MB/sec and 320 MB/sec SCSI is actually useful, unlike 133 MB/sec IDE, which is only useful until your drive’s onboard cache empties. Who cares whether a 2-meg cache empties in 0.0303 seconds or 0.01503 seconds?
There’s another advantage to SCSI with multiple devices. With IDE devices, you get two devices per channel, one interrupt per channel. With SCSI, you can do 7 devices per channel and interrupt. Some cards may give you 14. I know a lot of us are awfully crowded for interrupts, so being able to string a ton of devices off a single channel is very appealing. IRQ conflicts are rare these days but they’re not unheard of. SCSI giving you in one interrupt what IDE gives you in four is very nice in a crowded system.
Mail. More Windows optimization questions.
Subject: Re: Items to consider
To: Dave Farquhar
Would things be a bit faster if the user opted to start programs via the ‘RUN’ function of the Registry rather than via the Startup folder? I have seen this option mentioned in a couple of magazine articles.
I imagine they would be slightly faster, since the file and path names, etc. would be stored in registry keys all in one place as opposed to individual icons, one per program, scattered all over the place.
You might also use run= strings in win.ini instead–I suspect that technique would be faster still, being a flat text file rather than a convoluted database.
Now, whether doing this would make any noticeable difference on a modern PC is another question. We may be talking shaving fractions of a second off your boot time. I imagine the difference would be more noticeable on marginal machines (though I’m not very eager to re-commission my 486SX/20 to try it). I just saw a 486DX4/75 laptop today that takes 1.5 minutes to boot Windows even without any items in any of the startup places and a fully optimized msdos.sys–a decked-out modern system similarly configured could boot in about 15 seconds. I can’t imagine your system needing much more than 20 seconds to go from POST to desktop (I’m not familiar with modern Western Digital drives like you have but I imagine their performance must be comparable to the Quantums and Maxtors I use).
This trick dates back to the Win3.1 days, and it was a really good idea way back then–the startup group actually consumed system resources, plus valuable entries in the Windows directory, so eliminating startup and placing items in win.ini could seriously improve a system’s performance back then. Today, Win9x has much better resource management, hard drives and CPUs are much faster, so you don’t hear about it as much anymore.
Very little else for today. I found my copy of the Lost Treasures of Infocom (both volumes) this week, including Bureaucracy, a text adventure I was never able to beat. I found a walk-through that got me past the part that had me stuck.
It’s a whole lot faster on my PC than it was on my Commodore 128 (which was the machine I originally bought it for, what, 11 years ago?). Amazing how much fun a 12K executable paired up with a 240K data file can provide… (And I’m running this on a dual-processor machine with 96 MB RAM and an 8.4-gig hard drive, both due to be upgraded? Something’s wrong here…)