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How I got here in the end, part five: "things can only get better!"

I spent nearly three and a half years working on technical documentation for a UNIX vendor during the early 90s. Along the way, I learned Perl (against orders), accidentally provoked the invention of the robots.txt file, was the token Departmental Hippie, and finally jumped ship when the company ran aground on the jagged rocky reefs of the Dilbert Continent. At one time, that particular company was an extremely cool place to work. But today, it lingers on in popular memories only because of the hideous legacy of it's initials ... SCO.

SCO was not then the brain-eating zombie of the UNIX world, odd though this may seem to young 'uns who've grown up with Linux. Back in the late eighties and early nineties, SCO (then known more commonly as the Santa Cruz Operation) was a real UNIX company. Started by a father-son team, Larry and Doug Michels, SCO initially did UNIX device driver work. Then, around 1985, Microsoft made a huge mistake. Back in those days, MS developed code for multiple operating systems. Some time before then, they'd acquired the rights to Xenix, a fork of AT&T UNIX Version 7. SCO did most of the heavy lifting on porting Xenix to new platforms; and so, when Microsoft decided Xenix wasn't central to their business any more, SCO bought the rights (in return for a minority shareholding).

By late 1991, when I joined SCO, SCO wasn't just about Xenix. They had their own official UNIX SVR3 port, SCO UNIX, and (with X11 and a Motif-based GUI on top, and various other gadgets) this formed the core of a fairly neat desktop workstation environment, SCO Open Desktop. SCO back then was about 1200 people, with development centres in Santa Cruz (focussing on X11 and desktop integration), Toronto (the compiler team) and Watford, just outside London (where the UNIX kernel and command line utilities were maintained). It was, in short, a thriving software multinational with a somewhat Californian culture. There was, for example, a dress code: "clothing must be worn during office hours," which was imposed in the wake of an incident when it wasn't (which unfortunately coincided with an on-site visit by some major investors).

(If you are scratching your head and wondering why this doesn't sound much like the SCO Group that is the object of so much hatred these days, that's because it's not the same company. SCO Group started out as Caldera Systems, a Utah-based Linux startup bankrolled by Ray Noorda in the late 90s. They bought the name, trademarks, and — they thought — the UNIX intellectual property assets from the Santa Cruz Operation in 2001. The original SCO renamed itself "Tarantella Inc" and went away to do, well, Tarantella-ish things before being absorbed by Sun, and then Oracle. The SCO Group then went on to play merry hell with the Linux community and take a copious metaphorical shit all over my resumé. That's life in silly valley, I guess.)

When I answered the job ad for technical author, I didn't have much idea of what I was getting into. I'd bluffed my way into Real World Graphics, figured out what I was doing on the fly, and carved out a niche — but RWG was small, so small that I'd never worked with another tech author. SCO, in contrast, had an entire freaking department. In fact it had three departments, with about thirty folks in Santa Cruz, fifteen in Watford, and five in Toronto. If that sounds like a lot, well, SCO's techpubs operation was writing, maintaining, and pushing out something like thirty thousand pages of documentation on an eighteen month production cycle. By trade publishing standards they were over-staffed, but trade publishers don't generally employ their own authors in-house. About half the techpubs crew were editors or typesetters; and about half of us were writers.

"We'd like you to do an aptitude test," said Bridget, the department head, when she interviewed me. "Here's a notepad. I'd like you to take a stab at writing a house style guide for a techpubs department. You've got half an hour."

I eyeballed the Wyse terminal in the office behind her. "I thought you said you had Microsoft Word running on that?" I asked. "My handwriting's not very good ... mind if I use it?"

Bridget gave me a very strange look: it was to be the first of many. (Later, she told me that of all the candidates she'd interviewed for tech writing jobs, I was the only one who'd asked to use a word processor.)

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I didn't fit in too well at SCO; it was just my good luck that SCO suffered from acute multiple personality disorder and had plenty of room for the barkingly eccentric, as long as they could get the job done. SCO had arrived in the UK in the late 1980s, acquiring the UNIX division of a large British software house who really didn't understand this hippyish Californian stuff. A number of Californians had come over with the new company, and there'd been some cross-fertilization. The result: a company where some folks wore suits, some folks wore flip-flops and torn jeans, and the only common denominator was that everyone obeyed the dress code. The parent company was keen on training courses (we had an internal training division, and a budget), and team building exercises. A team building exercise in Santa Cruz meant something like midnight drumming on the beach; in Watford it was code for a lunchtime trip to the pub.

Technology wise ... you probably aren't interested so I'll keep it brief: we ate our own dogfood. When I joined the EMEA techpubs unit, we had sixteen green screen terminals hanging off a single 33MHz 386 PC running SCO UNIX, and we were editing our doc set in vi with a bastardized, weird set of troff macros for markup and sccs for version control. When I left, some years later, I abandoned a nice 486 workstation with a 17" monitor, running Open Deathtrap — sorry, Open Desktop — but still editing files with the same weird macros (apart from the odd foray into Framemaker for dealing with documents from our newly acquired subsidiary in Cambridge, IXI).

At SCO, I admit I went a bit wild. I got into a four month burn-out cycle; because I was doing a job I understood, in a comfortable environment, but within a bizarrely corporate administrative structure. About six months after I arrived, I went through the first downsizing of the 1990s — a cross-industry initiative to set up a rival platform to IBM and Microsoft crashed and burned, and SCO took a 10% headcount reduction in the course of recovering from the mess. We then lurched into developing a new product, SCO OpenServer. OpenServer was to be the all-singing all-dancing successor to Open Desktop; a desktop workstation environment with support for a whole barn-full of then-sexy UNIX technologies — diskless workstation installs (a 500Mb hard disk cost about £500 back then), remote administration via a scripted GUI environment written in a high level language (Tcl) using a graphics server that could cope with both X11 and CURSES displays, and I forget what else. The OpenServer development program turned out to be a bear. Originally scheduled to take 15 months, it succumbed to specification creep; by the time I left, three years later, it had just gone golden master and was about to ship. From the techpubs point of view, we were documenting a complex operating system product — it ran to about 8 million lines of code, on the same order as Windows NT 4.0, against which it would compete (badly) in the server market — and for the first time it would come with a revolutionary hypertext environment to display the documentation — a program called NCSA Mosaic.

The trouble with the mission creep from my point of view was that Parkinson's Law applies; work expands to fill the time available for its completion. A lot of the processes within SCO's techpubs environment were incredibly inefficient. But on the other hand, SCO was getting into the whole ISO 9000 quality assurance fandango. Consequently, everything got re-written, revised, edited, and chewed over sixteen bazillion times, and everyone got to try on a variety of ornamental and not particularly useful headgear. During this process I discovered several things about myself. I do not respond well to micro-managing. I especially do not respond well to being micro-managed on a highly technical task by a journalism graduate. Also, I'm a lousy proofreader. Did I say lousy? I meant lousy. Santa Cruz does indeed have a nice beach for late evening walks with your girlfriend. Oh, and: vi not emacs.

Around the early 90s, one of the perennial headaches in SCO's techpubs department received a permanent solution. The problem was this: how to simultaneously manage (a) an online help system and (b) printed paper manuals? Especially as paper is going away, because the cost of printing the documentation set on dead tree added about £40 to the cost of goods of a copy of SCO UNIX or Open Deathtrap — which is to say, took £40 per sale off the profit margin.

The solution we came up with was called HTML, a fun little SGML-derived markup language that ran on a client server platform called, ambitiously, the World Wide Web. In late 1992 or early 1993, SCO techpubs collectively went WWW-crazy. (That's why we ended up with the personal workstations; to run a web browser.) Our weird troff macro set was designed to support a future upgrade to SGML document management; now our coders purched into action with a bizarre mixture of awk and ksh scripts to chow down on troff and spit out HTML. Masses of HTML. Mountains of HTML. When OpenServer shipped there were something like a quarter of a million HTML links in the documentation tree. It took a server something like eleven hours to chew down on the troff source and spit it all out. But from mid-1993 on we were committed to the web. And reading the web at work.

Did I say "reading the web"? The web was kind of small in those days. There was a daily mailing list called, if I remember correctly, "what's new on the web". It listed every new website that had shown up, and I mean every new website. I used to read it with my morning coffee, visiting those that interested me; I'd usually finished by 10am. (It finally grew too big to follow by late 1994, and was abandoned some time in 1995.)

I confess, the web fascinated me. And I was getting increasingly bored and fractious with my job over those years. I wanted to code; but I'd talked myself into a comfortable, well-paid niche in which I was pretty much paid not to code. Or write fiction. (Almost without noticing, I'd tailed off to about two or three short stories a year, plus half a dozen articles for Computer Shopper.)

During one of my periods of burn-out I decided to teach myself Perl. So I started by trying to write a web spider — a bot that did a depth-first traversal of the web, to retreive (and eventually index) what it found, or just to download pages (a la wget or curl). There weren't many resources for robot writers back then; the internet in the UK was pretty embryonic, too. (SCO EMEA had a 64K leased line in those days, shared between 200 people.) I was testing my spider and, absent-mindedly, gave it a wired-in starting URL. What I didn't realize was that I'd picked a bloody stupid place to start my test traversals from; a website on spiders, run from a server owned by a very small company — over a 14.4K leased line. I guess I'd unintentionally invented the denial of service attack! Martin, the guy who ran the web server, got in touch, and was most displeased. First, he told me to stop hammering his system — advice with which I hastily complied. Then he invented a standard procedure: when visiting a new system, look for a file called "robots.txt", parse it, and avoid any directories or files it lists. I think I may have written the first spider to obey the robots.txt protocol; I'm certainly the numpty who necessitated its invention. (You can find the evidence here (look for websnarf).)

All good times come to an end.

In early 1995 I'd been doing some work on the side; both writing for Computer Shopper, and the beginnings of a web book for Addison-Wesley ... and also some perl programming for a guy from Edinburgh who was providing web technical support for Demon Internet. SCO was clearly in a tight spot, two years overdue on OpenServer, and I was getting a bit itchy around the soles of my feet; I could see the public internet and the web coming, and knew they were going to be huge.

One morning, our managers did a walkthrough of the cubicle hive, taking down all the Dilbert print-outs stapled to the beige fabric walls, and telling everybody to be ready for a magical mystery tour, leaving from the central courtyard at 1pm. I knew the signs; executives from head office are apparently subject to mysterious taboos, and must not under any circumstances be allowed to gaze upon the work of Scott Adams lest it bring bad luck to the department. And the magical mystery tour ... there was going to be some kind of big announcement. And it had to be big — we were in functional freeze and the mad dash to the final release candidate for the product that was more than two years overdue and which would make or break the company, with over five hundred Severity One bugs to fix! So what could possibly justify dragging the entire development group, and QA, and techpubs, and marketing, and sales, and admin, to an offsite for half a day? I didn't know, but I spent the rest of that morning updating my CV — just in case.

Now, I have learned, over the years, to be alert for Bad Signs when evaluating a company's health. Here is an example of a Bad Sign:

They bus everyone to an offsite meeting in a conference centre, hand out cups of grape juice, usher you into a theatre, dim the lights ... then the sound system comes up, playing Things Can Only Get Better as the board of directors run on-stage in their grey suits, punching the air and giving each other high-fives, to announce that:

a) The Chief Executive is retiring, and

b) His successor is the current Chief Financial Officer, and

c) Said CFO promises to grow the company revenues by 500% in 5 years

This was a company in the UNIX on PC sector at a critical time in its development. Linux was coming up on our radar with increasing frequency. The internet was not merely visible, but becoming a vital tool without which our internal processes wouldn't work, and public adoption was growing at something like a compound 50% per month — but the high-level management response was to emit a fart of a product, a neutered "personal" build of Open Desktop with a voucher for 10% off the cost of a leased line from UUNet or Pipex, priced at about the cost of a decent second-hand car.

Do I need to explain why putting an accountant in charge of a technology-driven company is not necessarily a wise, visionary, and forward-looking move?

At this point I considered myself to be on notice. But I was fat and happy at SCO, earning more than I'd ever earned before; it wasn't until another month had passed that I realized just how bad the situation was about to become.

As a Californian software corporation, SCO was prone to various types of American management disease; no alcohol on corporate premises, for example: and then the annual recurring Maoist self-criticism and re-education ritual known as the performance appraisal.

Maybe I'm being unjustly critical here; maybe my line manager (not Bridget) had grounds for her criticisms in 1995. Certainly I wasn't a team player — but then, the way I was working at that point was typically as a trouble-shooter, going in and fixing the more technical stuff that some of our other tech authors just didn't understand. Be that as it may, after one particularly bruising session I headed back down to the department under something of a cloud, following my manager. She departed, en route to a meeting; my course back to my cubicle went past her desk. I saw a blue hardback on the desk. "That's funny," I thought, "it's not like her to be reading a novel at work. It's probably something relating to management theory. Hmm."

I nosily flipped open the book and read the flyleaf. Did a short, sharp intake of breath. Closed the book carefully, marched back to my desk, picked up my phone, and dialed a number in Edinburgh.

"Fearghas. That job you were talking about ..."

"Yes? We're kind of tight right now."

"Um, I really need it."

"Are you sure? We've got enough money in the bank to pay for just one month. This is a start-up. I can't make any promises."

"Fearghas, I need a new job."

"Okay. When can you get up here?"

Here is an example of a Terminally Bad Sign for any organization in the computer business:

... When you discover that your line manager's recreational reading is the 1980 edition of the IBM Staff Handbook.

This may not make much sense to you if you're from the outside of the computer biz, but let's put it this way: IBM was the company that grew fat and happy catering to folks like those at Imperial Merchandise. Here's a transcript of an interview with an ex-IBMer from that period. Note how very corporate the corporate culture is. Note also that in 1993 IBM's traditional culture crashed and burned, running up what was then the biggest loss in American corporate history as they finally lost control of the PC business to Microsoft. If you see your managers taking helpful hints from the corporate equivalent of the Titanic on a speed-run through the ice-infested waters of the North Atlantic, it is clearly time to leave: and so I gave notice, packed my bags, drove up to Edinburgh, and enlisted in my second start-up death march ....




wow the legendary robots.txt and YOUR robots were about the first creatures to see it? Woow..Charlie, reading this brought briefly severe TEARS to my eyes. (*Falls to his knees and preys a bit* - I'm definitely unworthy to read this blog at all)


Nice bit on history and true to the form on SCO. Thanks...


Marius K: I just fixed a misdirected link; you can find that embryonic robot (written in Perl 4) here.


Ah yes, the SCO pricing vs Linux issue. I remember that fondly.

Replacing SCO Unix at a Unix programming training company at about that time. They were asking about 1000 pounds a desktop, and the school was teaching Motif, so it had 30 workstations. Saved the company 20k. I got 10%, for a weekends work. About 1/3 of my income that year (I was a student at the time).


Browsing through that first (or one of the first) prehistoric robots feels a bit like witnessing Keith Richards striking his first powerchord. Thanks a lot Charlie!


"Linux was coming up on our radar with increasing frequency."

That was in 1995? There should have been continuous proximity alerts and collision warnings by that point.

By 1995 Linux was already mature enough for commercial operation; I installed networks of Linux machines onboard ocean going vessels ( http://www.holmsjoen.com/bentson/LJ4.html ). It's possible that was one of the coolest things I've done, messing around with Linux onboard ships :-)

I think SCO finally realised the threat in 1997; that's when they gave away the "free for educational and non-commercial use" copies of OpenSewer and UnixBeware. I still have the disks and manuals. Installed them just to see what they were like and screamed in horror at the symlink trees. Stuck with Linux and SunOS, then Solaris :-)


Hippie? For some reason, I always had you down somewhere in the goth spectrum. Or does "hippie" in this case mean "adherent of a non-mainstream sartorial/musical subculture"?


Stephen: indeed, at my next job Linux was what was on my desktop. A bunch of SCO's engineers had been porting open source software (although nobody called it that, back then) to run on SCO under the Skunkware monicker since around 1993. I first did a Linux write-up in Shopper in, IIRC, 1992. But mahogany row were sufficiently distant from the engineering cubes that they didn't have a clue what was coming ...

In mid-1995, Red Hat was four guys in a garage. SCO had a buttload of experienced UNIX developers, some of whom were working on free software projects in their own hours. If SCO had taken Linux seriously in 1995/6, Red Hat wouldn't exist today -- and the Santa Cruz Operation (not, ahem, SCO Group) would be the 500lb gorilla of the Linux universe (with a backward-compatability shim for their old UNIX apps to run on). After all, SCO were lumbered with something like US $250 in royalties to shell out for each desktop they sold; if they'd slid their own IP onto a Linux platform, they'd have been able to cut costs and raise their profit margin.

The symlink trees were ... well, they were there because someone made the misguided judgement call in 1991 that disks were going to remain expensive so diskless workstations were the way to go. It was ugly as hell, but if you did it right, you could cram a primary server OpenSewer install into something like 500Mb, and get away with just 40Mb of local (or networked) disk storage unique to each workstation client on the network. Unfortunately for SCO, disk prices crashed in the two year period during which they implemented this scheme ...


Charlie@8: The backwards compatibility shim already existed; the ABI emulation layer. Worked amazingly well; In 1997/1998 I was able to run the SCO Unix version of Oracle on a Linux machine; my cheap home 386 machine outperformed the office Ultra 2 quite handily.

(Ugh, I'd almost suppressed those memories; setting up the compatability libraries weren't fun).

Cost per meg had been dropping well before 1991; almost halved between 1989 and 1991, following an existing trend ( http://www.littletechshoppe.com/ns1625/winchest.html ); someone at SCO really hadn't been watching the markets properly :-) Maybe they thought the trend couldn't continue... it's incredible to realise that we're now below 10c per Gb (Tbyte disks below US$100); 0.0014% of the cost of storage in 1991. Youch.

Yeah, with the right choices SCO could have been massive.

Ah, hindsight...

Interesting (to me) thought experiment; if SCO proper _had_ got into Linux and RedHat failed to become commercial, what would have happened? Early RedHat's were free (I switched to RedHat 4.0 from my home-grown build); would it have remained that way? Or would have it collapsed and the free beer community focused even tighter on Debian? Would there be less proliferation of distros, or maybe the overall Linux landscape would remain essentially unchanged, just the big commercial names changed. Hmm...


I'm looking forward to the next installment!


Did you perhaps omit from this episode a little device for the venting of high-pressure steam called Usenet, specifically alt.peeves? I'm pretty sure that's where I first saw you, having been dragged over by some talk.bizarre acquaintances.


"... When you discover that your line manager's recreational reading is the 1980 edition of the IBM Staff Handbook."

Back in 1988 I went to a bunch of interviews and "the IBM standard" was all the rage amoungst personnel and technical departmental managers. You got asked questions like "are you capable of producing 30 lines of code a day?" and they'd get you to do an aptitude test, because at that time the primary skills required of an IT manager were accountancy and BS.

Lucky for me that standard barred also managers from employing people with facial hair (as well as atheists, divorcees and no doubt other classes of deviants), so I didn't get sucked into that particular corporate hell until I was in a position to fight back (other story).

I'm really not surprised you were having problems there Charlie, the only people I knew at the time who were happy working in such environments were Mormoms and business studies graduates (I'm not kidding here).

I'm not sure I want to continue reading this series - you are giving me some truely horrible, horrible flashbacks!!!!


Stephen: I think the ridiculous pricing was likely more to do with a variety of delusion particularly common among those educated as accountants: "If we charge five times as much for our product, then we'll have five times the revenue!"

I've seen that in a number of companies and contexts. The idea that there could be substitutes for their marvelous product or that the customers will simply go elsewhere is inconceivable to them.


Speaking of that compatibility layer - I ran the SCO UNIX version of the IBM TSM backup client, on Solaris 10/x86, as recently as six months ago.


Clifton @11: not strictly relevant to the career path. I should reminisce about it some time, but not in this stream ...


IBM story. Back in the 60's John, my housemate, friend and fellow musician told me the following story.

Right after graduating from college, he went on a series of job interviews around the country. He went to an IBM Facility somewhere in the South (I can't remember exactly where).

It was a two day process in which he was first interviewed by a Personnel executive (we didn't have no stinkin' "Human Resources" then). Then he moved through the various departments, ending the second day with the general manager of the facility. At the end of that interview, the GM asked him if he would like to tour the town where the facility was located. At the end of the tour, the two talked for a few minutes and, just out of curiosity, John said "I noticed that every house seemed to have marigolds in the front yard." The GM replied. "I like marigolds."

John did not take the job.


Most of these 'part' stories are just a foreign language to me (both corporate and technical) but they are very entertaining.


Hi Charlie, is Fearghas is equivalent to Fergus?


My brother works for IBM. He's a quasi-hipster and quasi-punk, and has worked in their mainframe division (he started out porting Linux to mainframes, actually) for a while. The way the IBM dress code works now, is that whenever a zillion-dollar bank has a mainframe crisis, they call up IBM and remind them that their very expensive support contract includes having real engineers who have hacked the kernel show up in person to solve their problem. So IBM sends him, blue hair and all to visit the bank.

Oddly, the more conservative the client, the more reassuring they find engineers with weird punk hairstyles. Obviously, IBM wouldn't let a guy like that anywhere near a customer, unless he was really the best they had, right?


Tim @17: it's just, well, background, right? I'm remembering stuff as I spin this memoir. It's kind of salutory to realize just how weird my career progression must seem, from the outside.

Eamon @18: it's a variant spelling, yes.

Neel @19: that's how it works now. Trust me, that's not how it worked then (circa 1980, the date on that Staff Handbook), pre dot-com era, pre web, pre geek cultural ascendency.

Banks ... I'll get to my experience of banking IT folks later, probably in episode 7 or 8.


Wow, reading this is a blast of nostalgia for me - my dad worked at the Toronto branch, and I grew up on SCO UNIX. He escaped in the mid-90s, after spending a year in England helping out IXI. We still have the OpenServer install media kicking around somewhere, along with some other souvenirs.

I didn't know you were responsible for robots.txt. Cool story.



When I worked as the fly-in and fix it troubleshooter for Madge in the US I was told that clients liked my long hair for much the same reason. Clearly this guy was a "real" developer...


general comment. This is the era that Novell managed to screw up their plans for world domination. If they had't taken their eye off the ball and gone buying word perfect and god knows what else then maybe Microsoft would have crashed anf burned in the server marker. God knows NT ran like a total dog and was buggy as heck but it still crashed in a marginally better way than Novells netware 4 - most of the time.

But I digress....



they can both sing the blues then ;)



Oh aye. There is no cloaked dagger there, just a comment on my own lack of knowledge and experience but that i follow the gist and find it a fascinating path so far. Which is completely irrelevant anyway.


Reading an early history (no matter how personal or eccentric) of the Internet is surreal for people my age. I remember when the Internet was just one of the things you *could* do with a computer, compared to now when a computer without a connection feels neutered, but I don't actually remember much about what it was like back then. 'Course we paid by the hour and I spent most of my time allowance looking for pictures of bigfoot, and oh yeah I was 9 years old, so I didn't see much of the scenery. The funny little numbers (40 mb!) are cute, too.


Ah yes, computers:

When I joined SCO, my personal computer was: a 20MHz Elonex 386 tower with 4Mb of RAM and a 320Mb ESDI hard disk, 3.5" and 5.25" floppies, and a 14" Tatung colour VGA monitor. I also had a laptop -- a NEC V30-powered Zenith MiniSport with 2Mb of RAM and a 2" (yes, two inch) floppy disk drive and external 3.5" drive.

I acquired my first modem in 1992, and the antipope.uucp dialup node in 1993. antipope.demon.co.uk followed in 1994.

When I left SCO in 1995, my personal computer was: an Apple Performa 630 (upgraded with a 68040 processor), 40Mb of RAM, 200Mb hard disk (or thereabouts) plus external 500Mb drive, CDROM drive, and a 15" Apple colour display. Yes, it had a modem and an ethernet port.

My laptop was an Apple Powerbook 145b (8Mb RAM, 80Mb disk) and it's still with me (although I haven't powered it up for a couple of years).

Oh, and I had a PDA: a Psion Series 3A with 512Kb of RAM.


Charlie @20: yes, my brother has gotten lots of stories about "old Blue" from the lifers at IBM.

One of the more surprising things is that Gerstner is very admired, despite the mass layoffs that he masterminded. He's seen as having saved IBM from the catastrophic blunders of his insular, blinkered predecessors. I take this as a sign of just how much value people place on working for managers who are competent and not disconnected from reality, as opposed to managers they feel contempt for. (blah blah blah alienation of labor blah blah, if you want. :)


Ah-ha... a major source of inspiration for the Laundry becomes abundantly clear! (Having just re-read Atrocity Archive and Jennifer Morgue. :) )


"There was, for example, a dress code: "clothing must be worn during office hours," which was imposed in the wake of an incident when it wasn't"

Once upon a time, three of the founders of Silicon Graphics made a "skinnyhacking" video (analogous to skinnydipping). Google just told me that it made the cover of a SIGGRAPH journal issue. (http://www.geometer.org/peru/)

As for inadvertently inventing the DOS attack, computers and networks were so slow in those days that DOS attacks were the norm.

I loved this installment. Keep 'em coming!


Re: early history of the Internet:

I was doing some reading a couple of weeks ago about the first-generation iMac, the candy-colored lumpy computers that came out in 1998, a year after Steve Jobs came back.

I was reminded that one of the chief selling points of this machine was that the chief way it would communicate with the outside world would be through the Internet. It didn't have a parallel port, serial port, or floppy drive (although it did have a USB port). Those changes were revolutionary, and controversial.


The first deliberate Denial of Service (DoS) attacks I can recall took place in the early 1990s, with the Panix SYN-flood in 1996 widely popularizing the concept due to the visibility of the Panix incident within the operational community.

Of course, RTM's 1988 worm caused multiple Internet-wide inadvertent DDoSes, and I seem to recall a 1978 incident at Xerox PARC in which the stupid 'benign network worm' concept various know-nothings seem to re-invent about every 18 months or so was put into practice on the PARC Alto network, with predictable consequences.


Roland @30 and @31

Two messages? What kind of pathetic DoS do you call that?


Jim: for some reason MT seems to be letting multiple posts through -- I think I dropped the interval between postings too low. So when I spot identical duplicates I nuke the earlier one. Hence the disappearing message.

Oh, and hello to all the visitors from Hacker News! You might want to go up a level -- this essay is #5 of a series.


I seem to recall that Caldera bought DRDos and proceeded to kill it, too. (Not that it wouldn't have died, because of Windows, but it's still a good OS, better than MSDos.)


AIUI Caldera bought DR for the DRDOS/Microsoft anti-trust lawsuit, which they won (and presumably used the proceeds to buy the SCO IP).


And entertaining and educational too.
Keep it coming as time allows.


Wow, this triggered a lot of old memories for me. I graduated WPI in 1994 and went on into the Internet/computer industry. I'd been online since 1989 (when I entered college), in 1991 my friend Joe knew some guy at CERN who worked with this guy Tim who was working on this new 'HTML' thing. So I had some early exposure to the CERN command line browser, but it was NCSA Mosaic that really made me see how the 'web' could really take off. I'd been running an FTP site and the change from Archie, Veronica, gopher, WAIS, etc, was a major improvement.


Points ...
"Bridget" as in "Atrocity Archives" Bridget, hmmmm .....
Internet - yes - first encountered www at Brunel doing my M.Sc (@ age 48) fascinating, and frustrating, because there weren't any decent w-p programmes/facilities available - they only supp[orted WordPervert - which meant I had to write my dissertation in Lotus123.

UIS managements' perversions.
THAT'S happened to me as well, as the multinational I used to work for got a bad go of that in the mid-to-late 80's when the Thatcher/Reagan "crush the workers" ideas were around.
NOT a good idea in an industrial research lab .....


vi not emacs? Heresy! Let the method wars begin!

(He says, as someone who used emacs on a vt240 as an IDE for half a decade...)

(And who has a colleague who is strong in the ways of vi, but has it set up for purple-on-black for some text, which I can't actually see...)


@13: iPhone anyone?

Apple seem to have a corporate stranglehold on the consumer at the moment. Can't wait for them to have their arms broken by someone (anyone!).


@ 40 & 13
That's the classic mistake Aplle made with the Mac.
"We have devised the perfect home computer, and we are going to CHARGE for it ....."
And they didn't set about upgrades as soonas it came out.
So, although MicroShaft are sometimes not nice to know, I don't actually think "Apple" are any better in the way they treat their paying customers.
[ retreats and awaits flaming from the disciples of Jobs ]


Greg: [ retreats and awaits flaming from the disciples of Jobs ]

That would be me, eh? (Typing this on a MacBook Pro ...)

Apple understands, from sales through engineering to board level, one thing that the rest of the computer industry has yet to twig to: the value of good design. They're big (and a bit evil) for the same reason that Sony in the good old days under Akio Morita) was big -- they made products that were fit for purpose and usable for the job, rather than ticking all the boxes on a cobbled-together checklist of functional requirements.

Apple are like BMW compared to the PC world of GM and Chevy and Ford, where nobody makes much of a profit and the public complain about the products (even though they keep buying them). You don't see folks pointing the finger at BMW and saying "they're a failure! They've only got 2.5% market share!" ... do you?


Apple certainly make a good looking product, although they charge an excessive price (or so it seems to me).

What annoys me is that all the other companies seem to be monumentally dim (to be polite) and that dimness means that there's not enough competition in the design, resulting in the situation as it stands.

As you rightly point out there's a similar comparison with cars - why can't Honda make something that looks as nice as an DB9? Reliability and decent looks are not mutually exclusive.

It must be my age, kids today are all about appearances!


I would imagine that half the people reading this thread have already read Neal Stephenson's _In the beginning was the command line_. The other half really need to read it, right away. I'd lend y'all my copy, but some other bugger's got it, as usual.


Chris Williams: It is indeed excellent, and available online.


It took me a long time to realise that I'd been exposed to your writing way back in the early-mid 1990's when as a teenage wannabe computer geek I would devour Computer Shopper and PCW each month. I was especially pleased to find out you'd written the INTERCAL article that seared it's way into my mind at the time (as indeed did the illustration of the demented rabbit on amphetamines).

Good times.


Picky I know, but it's Martijn, not Martin. I was at university with him, and a jolly good bloke he was too.


@ 42
Charlie - yes & no.
Apple seem to permanently overcharge for what they are offering.
As do BMW - for cars at any rate.
Both have superb design, but ... do they really do the job in a cost-effective manner?
And both of them, just as much as MicroShaft try to tie the user exclusively to their products.

But then,I drive a real LandRover (like a well-known Scottish SF & other author ... )


Have downloaded Stephenson's piece, I'm interested.

I would be VERY interested in a "Tank" (Linux) - except.
HOW do I maintain it?
HOW do I transfer material across from other OS's?
HOW user-friendly is it?
Remember, I've just recovered from a hard-disk crash, and data-recovery fiasco .....
AND - let's face it, I'm out of touch - I can just about still write BASIC code, that's the limit.....


Greg. @49, Charlie knows more, but I checked out The Linux Bible from the library.


I somehow never new about the newsletter with "new on the web" stuff -- and I put up my first sites during the period it covers. They don't seem to be in it. (ddb.com and mnstf.org and demesne.com) Ah well. (I was hoping to nail the date down more accurately.) I know I registered the domains before that cost money, and I think the dates shown in DNS may be pessimistic because I vaguely remember there was a db crash that lost them some dates in there somewhere.

Yeah, networking is way cool. I've been impatiently waiting for stuff we almost have ever since The Mote In God's Eye, which had wireless handheld computers / terminals that interacted with a useful network, and had ubiquitous support.



they charge an excessive price (or so it seems to me).

The funny part is that they don't charge an excessive price. When I purchased a 24" iMac, a couple friends remarked the exact same thing. So, I proceeded to a well known brand PC assembler site, built a computer to exactly the same specification (same cpu, ram, disk, screen, video card).

I then presented the result, concluding "I'm paying about 60€, or 3% of the total for the privilege of having a computer that is elegant".

The problem with Apple isn't excessive prices. As charlie says, it's that they don't have low-end / budget equipment. That's something I always have to remind people: Apple makes systems; everyone else assemble systems.