It’s like 2002 all over again

This long and rather rambling observation has its roots in a small, but innocent mistake I made about five years ago. And believe it or not, I documented that mistake here.

I have a lot of favorite machines that stick out in my memory years after they’ve passed on to new owners or the digital afterlife. There is an obligaory parade of forgotten machines, but some are definitely easy to remember.

This was one. And this one, while it was a whipping boy, was not easily forgotten. This one met with an unfortunate end that no one was to blame for. And for my money, there are still not many computers better than this one.

The mistake though, and the domino effect that brings me to this page, was sending this machine on to a new owner.

Like them or hate them, the 8000-series of Dell laptops from the turn of the century were some of the last ones to really tickle my technophile funny bone.

An 8000-labeled machine could handle a mid-market Nvidia GeForce4 440 card at 1600×1200, which in 2006 was more than enough to run Compiz in Ubuntu, or Neverwinter Nights at native resolution in Linux. (Don’t try that with Ubuntu now. :evil: )

The 8000 could hold a Pentium III chip up to 1.4Ghz, if I recall correctly. And the top-of-the-line 8200 machine, with a BIOS upgrade, could wrangle with the manly 2.6Ghz Pentium 4 — and, rumor has it, a 64Mb Nvidia Quadro4 Go GL.

On top of that, removable side and front media bays, support for dual hard drives, and the alternative to connect an external drive by parallel cable. Plus the option for not-just-one-but two batteries, a mini-PCI expansion slot (think: Intel wireless card) … and maybe best of all, the unspoken ability to handle 2Gb of PC2700 memory, although Dell wouldn’t document it.

Even the palmrests could be swapped out for six or seven different colors. :lol:

Short of building your own laptop out of a whitebox, the 8200 was probably the best you could expect to get from a mainstream computer company. You’d need to move into desktops to get something more flexible.

Getting into and out of an 8000-era machine was a piece of cake too. Four screws and the keyboard came off, putting you within striking range of the processor and video card. Three more screws and the screen was off. A few more, and the entire business unfolded like a string of paper dolls.

Dell followed the 8200 with a complete redesign — a shift into the silver casings and slimmer, lighter forms of the 8500 and others. The 5150 was released in 2003, the 8600 soon after. I’ve owned an 8600, and while it was smaller and lighter, it wasn’t nearly as much fun to tear down and build back up.

Around five years ago I decided it was time to part with my 8000, for reasons that sounded good at the moment. Many times since then I’ve wondered if I did the right thing. About six months ago I started thinking that the uncanny valley of computer pricing might put an 8000 back in range, and I started watching auctions.

And about a month ago, I came across an 8200 that was seemed clean and complete, without undue wear and tear, and the price was right … all of about US$60. :shock:

I did not misplace my investment. The seller claimed the machine was clean, but s/he didn’t say it was museum quality. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect specimen. Impeccable screen, not a scratch anywhere, 1Gb of memory, carrying case included. I’ve even been inside the machine twice, and I can’t find any dust. The only sign of use is a small worn spot on the touchpad. (Well, of course the battery had failed. :roll: )

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It’s like 2002 all over again. ;)

I’ve since done the final BIOS update and dropped in that beastly 2.6Ghz chip, as well as a 64Mb GeForce4 440. It’s got a proper wireless card now (I won’t patronize Broadcom, even in a 12-year-old laptop) and a second hard drive. I’m waiting for a DVDRW and a pair of sparkly green palmrests. :roll: And ironically, the system drive it is using right now is the same one I bought years ago, for my original 8000. Imagine that.

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It’s a good feeling. It’s one part nostalgia and one part having the luxury of rebuilding a machine to its practical summit at a price that isn’t astronomical. I said once a long time ago that technology prices follow a strange curve, bottoming out after about 8 years and then spiking back up when people start to attach the word “vintage” to it. And nowadays, it feels like the 8000s have reached the trough of that curve.

So putting together everything I’ve described — even with a machine that really ought to have been twice as much as what I paid — has barely broken US$150. And yes, that includes the sparkly green palmrests. :roll:

Welcoming the new encumbrance

The bulk of my daily “work” is done on a 12-year-old Pentium 4 machine. I’ll save the gory details for later; suffice to say that it is a bit of a classic, and one I enjoy using immensely.

I have noticed though, that in spite of running svelte and light, as you would expect me to do, that there are some significant slowdowns.

Originally the machine came equipped with Windows XP, a meager 1.6Ghz processor and a lowly 1Gb of memory. Nothing to write home about.

I upped that to 2.6Ghz and 2Gb with Arch Linux, not so much because it needed it, but because it’s cheap now, and the machine itself is easy to upgrade.

And it handles most everything I need it for — surfing, online transactions, browser-based word processing or data analysis, and perhaps running VICE for a distraction or two. ;)

In fact, short of intrinsic hardware improvements — like more processor cores or finer screen resolutions or solid state drives — there’s not a whole lot that has really changed between this and most “modern” laptops. Sure, mine is a little slower by necessity, but all the same core parts are there: motherboard, drive, video adapter, display, and so forth. Twelve years have been rather patient with this machine.

But there are specific times when it’s definitely moving slower than, for example, the weatherbeaten Dell D830 I keep on the desk nearby. Not on the start, and not in file management or music playback or even 3D animation. Heck, I get something like 2000fps in glxgears. And that’s with a mid-market video card that was obsolete in 2004.

But there’s a lurch or a drag now that, to be honest, I don’t remember seeing even five or six years ago on a lowly 1Ghz Pentium III.

And the culprit is … the Internet. :shock:

Navigating the web is hands-down the biggest, densest chore, and at its worst, it’s almost spine-chilling. Long page redraws, fans at full tilt while rendering an image. Not just on this machine, but on others too.

And that’s where the cold sense of impending doom creeps in, because there’s not much remedy for it. It’s outside our control.

Six years ago I insisted those slap-happy lightbox effects were a drudge. More than once, in fact.

But six years ago I would have chalked up a slurred effect to the operating system — blame Windows, that was obviously the problem. If you couldn’t get tip-top performance out of a machine as powerful as a Pentium 4, then your bloated operating system was at fault.

And the core of that issue was easy to read: Microsoft makes no money unless you re-buy their product. It’s defective by design. It’s programmed obsolescence. Create a product that self-destructs over the course of two or three years, and you have a chance to glean a little more revenue, periodically. Just like light bulbs, or televisions. This is nothing new.

Only now I’m not sure that’s the source of the problem. Yes, Microsoft and Apple are still sticking it to the uneducated consumer. And yes, John Q. Public still thinks computers are like brake pads that have to be bought over and over again, over time.

But this new limiting factor — bogging down the web with clutter and flair — that’s the wave of the future.

It doesn’t matter any more what operating system you run, if it has two cores or four, if it has this much memory or more. If the new Web-based culture is the least bit impeded by Firefox’s degrading ability to show pictures of cats. … Well, then: Time for a new computer.

To me, this makes a lot of sense. The PC market is dying, a generation of smartphone users are reaching the age of majority, and the contract-and-renewal system embraced by the cell phone industry is far more appealing than the traditional slap-and-dash shiny-new-desktop re-buying gimmick.

So long as the content is dragged to a crawl by lightbox effects and worthless glitter, then declining performance in online applications and cloud-based computing become the new delimiter. Can’t get to your Facebook status quite so fast any more? Maybe it’s time for a new gizmo.

Personally, I welcome this new encumbrance with the same aplomb as I have in the past, when 800Mhz machines were called old, or hyper-threading P4s were castoffs. Your loss is my gain. I have bought Vista-era dual cores in perfect condition for less than $50, and received outstanding performance at the cost of no more effort than clicking a few buttons in Linux Mint. Albeit there was that same dragging effect, when rendering pictures of cats. :???:

It’s a little disconcerting that this new trend places the burden beyond the reach of the computer user, in a place where there’s not much they can do about it. But it’s a big world and we have a lot of time stretching out in front of us. I’m sure someone will come up with a solution. In the mean time, you can send your leftover core duo machines to me. :twisted:

Any colour you like

I’m going to break radio silence a little bit, and drop a post here for the first time in years.

I’ll say up front that if these screenshots offend you, I won’t apologize.

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Nor will I apologize if you find these somehow irritating.

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In fact, if you don’t like them, I really don’t care at all. Simply because what I use on my computer is not your business.

Horrified at the thought that someone might still use an interface that was designed before you were born? Deal with it. Can’t believe someone wouldn’t find the Luna-esque Windows XP themes oily and kitsch? Tough. Think I’m a troll if I claim Windows 2000 was the last good Microsoft operating system? Suffer.

The thing is, I still use desktops like that from time to time, maybe just to irritate readers like you, but maybe because it’s what I like.

I got a lot of traffic over the weekend to an old page I drew up a few years ago, about massaging IceWM to follow the look of the old Windows XP Classic theme. The referring site linked to my page, and to another that wasn’t mine, that offered some themes intended to XP-Luna-ify Lubuntu. That’s what you see in the top photos.

I knew it would happen. Unless I’m mistaken, Tuesday was the death knell for Windows XP. Some well-meaning Linux enthusiasts are pushing the OS of their choice, with an XP makeover, as an alternative to buying the newest slop out of Redmond.

And surprisingly (to me, anyway), the majority of the feedback on that referring site was negative. Don’t lull a Windows user into using Linux. You’re doing them a disservice. Tell them to adapt or perish, now as ever, as is nature’s inexorable imperative.

Take a step back for a second. Try to think like you’re not the geek that we both are. ;)

There are a lot of people — a lot — for whom a computer is not a hobby, not a passion, and not the locus of their waking hours. For them, computers are just tools, probably in the same way cars are for other people. Or microwave ovens for others, or bookkeeping for others … or you name it for whoever.

A computer to them is just an object. It’s a thing. It doesn’t hold any great curiosity, it’s not interesting to pull apart, and it doesn’t enthuse them beyond what they need to get a job done. A car gets you from point A to point B, and a computer gets you from point C to point D.

I can sympathize. I have a lot of dis-interests like that. You could talk to me all day about laptops and free software, and you’d lose me the second you changed the subject to real estate or the stock market. It just doesn’t grab me.

So for those folks who need something that behaves how they expect, and does what they need, and looks the way they know … I fail to see the harm in setting up a desktop that is arranged the way they want it.

And if that doesn’t squelch your quasi-insurgent anti-establishment justifications for Ludovico techniques, consider the possibility that Lubuntu rearranged to look like the original Windows XP startup screen might just be what they like.

About five years ago I put fingers to keys and pounded out a list of four hideous reasons to adopt Linux, the last of which was “duress.” Actually, looking over it now is a good reminder of how things were, and what they’ve become.

I won’t retract that last item though. I still think being “forced” to use Linux, either through deceit or the expiration of a 13-year-old operating system, is a bad idea.

But I can’t see the harm in giving someone a newer, or even a different operating system at their request, and then rearranging it to resemble what they know and expect. Or just plain like.

And now, one more, to see if I can trigger a gag reflex in that last tiny segment of the audience who actually read this far:

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Linux Mint Petra, MATE edition, done over to look like XP. Why? Because I like it that way. :twisted:

The end of the end

I suppose the secret is out; a desktop image was leaked a week or two ago into the Unix screenshot area of reddit.

That can mean only one thing: Yes, I’ve been answering e-mails and concocting some low-end systems again, for better or for worse.

So yes, I suppose I am … you could say, if you want, maybe, it’s possible, kinda-sorta … back in the game. :shock:

But there’s been a definite sea change. After a year and a half of inactivity, I can’t just suddenly pick up and run.

The best way to handle a transition of this magnitude is to acknowledge the closure, and start again fresh.

So without any further ado, here’s a new page for you to visit: inconsolation.wordpress.com.

That’s meant to be a double- or triple-entendre there. I want the focus to be on software for text-based systems, the kind of software that was a joy to write about here, again and again, for so many years.

Therefore, in the console. (Cheesy, I know, but with the layered meaning that I know geeks will appreciate. :) )

Fewer personal rants, fewer esoteric system settings, and more applications that are useful for embedded, text-only, or very low-end hardware. More of the goodies.

And good grief, I know I still have enough software to skim through. :shock: My hands were full when I shut down this site, and are still full now.

Either way, this is the end of the end — things are starting up again, albeit in a new location. If you can take the time, please stop by and see what new toy I discovered. And tell me about your favourite. I do love a good text-based gizmo. … ;)

The elephant in the room: A coda

Before I even get started, before I deliver the unhappy news, I should say first and foremost “thank you,” to everyone who left notes or sent e-mails over the past four months.

There were a lot more than I anticipated, and I apologize if I didn’t get the time to reply to all of them. Regardless, you were all too kind. I am humbled.

It has been four months though, and I have to acknowledge the ugly truth now — I’m very, very unlikely to be able to pick up the schedule I had even six months ago.

Priorities change, life rearranges, and there’s nothing anyone can do except shrug and soldier on.

If it’s any consolation, my “life changes” were good ones — no one went to jail, no one is missing or suddenly responsible for newly arrived little humans. ;)

This was simply a reshuffling of job-related tasks, a few new projects that came to the forefront, and as a result less time for the projects I held dear.

I had hoped that I would be able to adjudicate my resources and keep something fresh on the menu here. But I looked around the other day and realized my collection was actually dusty, which I would never have tolerated a year ago.

And with that realization, I gave it ten minutes’ thought, and decided to cull the herd one last time.

And so it’s all gone.

Everything down to the last spare hard drive, quirky PCMCIA wireless card or giveaway floppy disk. All. Gone.

Gone to the local secondhand shop, gone to friends who could use a second computer, gone to the aluminum recyclers, as a last resort.

I’m left with the X60s, a few USB flash drives, and an odd cable or two.

I kept some rarities — all the CF cards and adapters are still mine, as well as a scarce-as-hen’s-teeth 64Mb stick of PC66. I’m not dumb.

But I look around now, and you’d never guess this was a bastion of Linux zealotry. From here, the battle was fought?

The experience has left its mark though, and the mark is indelible. I flip-flop these days between an Arch Linux installation cut to look like Windows XP (it’s a personal joke, really) and Linux Mint Debian. One or the other can usually get the job done.

Windows will never be back. The real stain of experimenting with Linux for nigh-on-six years is that you realize how things ought to be, and realize you just can’t get everything you want — or need — from Bill & Co.

And even in parts of my life that ordinarily are unrelated to computers, I find the same mindset slipping in.

My latest project — which I won’t link to, out of embarrassment ;) — is licensed under the GFDL, because I want that same spirit of sharing to be repeated there.

And really, that’s what I take away from six years at the keyboard: That the same principles most of us were taught as children — to share, and not to exclude others — are still the best ones we have today.

The world would be a much better place if we all followed the same rules we were taught decades ago, in the sandbox.

If you want to know numbers, I can tell you that, by far and large, the most popular post in this site’s six-year history was the rtorrent tutorial. A close second was the list of things you can do with an old computer.

The busiest day was February 9, 2011, when more than 56,000 people wandered past that same page, to see what the big deal was.

And believe it or not, after four months with zero activity, I still get upward of 1,500 visitors a day — sometimes peaking at 2,000. Who’d’ve thunk it.

I’m not one for long and tearful goodbyes, and I’ve really blabbered on long enough. So let’s call it a wrap.

Thanks for everyone who left comments or offered help in my adventures. Your insight and contributions were instrumental every step of the way.

Thanks in particular to the staff of the Ubuntu Forums and the Ubuntu community in a larger sense. Say what you like about Ubuntu (I did, all too often), but it’s the collective helpfulness and camaraderie of the people who use it that got me out of the starting gate, and where I am now.

And finally, thanks for reading this far.

さようなら, tsamaya ka khotso, and cheers. Be kind to one another. We’re all we’ve got. :)

Hiatus

As I have mentioned in the past, my real-life responsibilities include some middle-management tasks. Quite glamorous.

Unfortunately, as they did last month, those responsibilities became more time-consuming last week, and don’t seem to offer any foreseeable break in the future.

I must put this site into hibernation for a while, and if I can recover the free time it takes to maintain it, I’ll reopen it again.

I apologize if that is disappointing or an inconvenience for you; it is also a little disappointing to me. But unfortunately there are only so many hours in a day, and right now they’re just not enough.

I will probably disable commenting after a few days, but please keep in touch via the e-mail form on the About page. I may get a chance to answer you, but I can’t promise anything.

Keep your fingers crossed. Cheers, and be kind to one another. ;)

Hey, Ridley, ya got any bmon?

Time for another quick look at the wonderful world of console applications.

This is bmon, and it would be easy to dismiss this as yet another network monitor for the console. But actually, I like it a lot.

Most monitors require you to declare an interface at startup, and most of those are tied to that interface until you close the application down, or start a new instance.

bmon is nifty in that it gives you a look at just about everything that’s running, on every interface available. And includes mega-cool svelte animated graphs showing traffic, as it happens.

This would be very useful indeed to anyone using more than one network port on a machine, or perhaps a machine dedicated to relaying network traffic.

For me it’s a little overkill. But the nice thing about console programs is, even when they’re overkill, they’re hardly a drag on your system. Enjoy. :)

P.S.: Thanks to nico for pointing it out. ;)