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Another ordinary Monday…

Seen on a sign. God calls us to play the game, not to keep the score.
I like that.

Seen at a book sale. The Coming War with Japan. The book was written in 1992 and asserted that the conditions that pre-dated World War II exist today and that war is inevitable. Then I spotted another book: The Japanese Conspiracy. I didn’t bother picking that one up. I could have bought them for entertainment value, but I picked up a couple of books by Dave Barry and P.J. O’Rourke for that.

The idea seems ridiculous to me.

I was glad I went over to the section on war though. In addition to those, I also found A Practical Guide to the Unix System, Third Edition, by Mark G. Sobell. Had it been in the computer section where it belonged, it would have been snapped up long before I got there. It comes from a BSD perspective, but I have to work with a BSD derivative at work sometimes, so it’s good to have. At the very least, it can serve as a status book (books you keep on your shelf in your office to make it look like you know something, even if you never read them).

Speaking of humor value… I picked up a book on typography, written in 1980. Some of my classmates had a knack for making type look really good–they could literally turn a headline into art. I never got that knack. This book tries to teach it. It also talks about computerized typography. Needless to say, the couple of pages that illustrate that are just a wee bit out of date.

But I’m not worried about the key points of the book being out of date. The basic elements of good design were old news when Gutenberg built his first printing press.

Retro computing. I was inventorying my old stuff and I ended up building a computer. I have an original IBM PC/AT case, but the last of the AT motherboards don’t fit in it well. The screws line up, I’m in trouble if I need any memory, because the drive cage blocks the memory slots on a lot of boards, including my supercheap closeout Soyo Socket 370 boards I picked up a year or so ago. I used the motherboard that had been in that case for something else long ago, and it’s been sitting ever since.

In my stash, I found a Socket 7 board that fits and lets me put the memory in it. It even has 2 DIMM and 4 SIMM sockets in it. Unfortunately it has the Intel 430VX chipset in it, which didn’t cache any memory above 64 MB, limited the density of SDRAM it would recognize, and its SDRAM performance was so lousy you didn’t really see much difference between SDRAM and EDO. But if I run across a 32-meg DIMM or two it’ll fit, and a relatively slow CPU with adequate memory still makes a good Linux server, especially if you give it a decent SCSI card.

I did some investigation using the tools at www.motherboards.org, and found out the board was a Spacewalker Shuttle. So I went to www.spacewalker.com, where I found out there were only three Shuttle boards ever made with the 430VX chipset. There were pictures of each board, so I quickly figured out which one I had–a HOT-557/2 v1.32. It tops out at a Pentium 200 or a Pentium MMX 166, so I’ve got some options if I decide the AMD K5-100 in there isn’t enough horsepower. And, most importantly to me at least, it looks like a computer. A machine from a time when computers were computers, not boomboxes and fax machines and toaster ovens and television sets. A machine that looks rugged enough to survive a tumble down a flight of stairs. A hot-rodded classic. A man’s machine, ar ar ar!

Back to the grind. The weekend’s over, and it’s time to think about work. Have a wonderful week, check the news sources I cited Saturday if you want, and check back in here a few times while you’re at it, won’t you?

Another RISC platform for Linux

Vintage workstations. I’ve read two articles this past week about running Linux or another free Unix on vintage hardware.

And while I can certainly appreciate the appeal of running a modern free Unix on a classic workstation from the likes of DEC or Sun or SGI, there’s another class of (nearly) workstation-quality hardware that didn’t get mentioned, and is much easier to come by.

Apple Power Macintoshes.

Don’t laugh. Apple has made some real dogs in the past, yes. But most of their machines are of excellent quality. And most of the appeal of a workstation-class machine also applies to an old Mac: RISC processor, SCSI disk drives, lots of memory slots. And since 7000-series and 9000-series Macs used PCI, you’ve got the advantage of being able to use cheap PC peripherals with them. So if you want to slap in a pair of 10,000-rpm hard drives and a modern SCSI controller, nothing’s stopping you.

There’s always a Mac fanatic out there somewhere willing to pay an exhorbinant amount of money for a six-year-old Mac, so you won’t always find a great deal. Thanks to the release of OS X (which Apple doesn’t support on anything prior to the Power Mac G3, and that includes older machines with G3 upgrade cards), the days of a 120 MHz Mac built in 1996 with a 500-meg HD and 32 megs of RAM selling for $500 are, fortunately, over. Those machines run Linux surprisingly well. Linux of course loves SCSI. And the PPC gives slightly higher performance than the comparable Pentium.

And if you’re lucky, sometimes you can find a Mac dirt-cheap before a Mac fanatic gets to it.

The biggest advantage of using a Mac over a workstation is the wealth of information available online about them. You can visit www.macgurus.com to get mainboard diagrams for virtually every Mac ever made. You can visit www.everymac.com for specs on all of them. And you can visit www.lowendmac.com for comprehensive write-ups on virtually every Mac ever made and learn the pitfalls inherent in them, as well as tips for cheap hardware upgrades to squeeze more speed out of them. I learned on lowendmac.com that adding video memory to a 7200 increases video performance substantially because it doubles the memory bandwidth. And on models like the 7300, 7500, and 7600, you can interleave the memory to gain performance.

Besides being better-built than many Intel-based boxes, another really big advantage of non-x86 hardware (be it PowerPC, Alpha, SPARC, MIPS, or something else) is obscurity. Many of the vulerabilities present in x86 Linux are likely to be present in the non-x86 versions as well. But in the case of buffer overflows, an exploit that would allow a hacker to gain root access on an Intel box will probably just crash the non-x86 box, because the machine language is different. And a would-be hacker may well run into big-endian/little-endian problems as well.