There’s an “old” superstition at the Tower of London which states that if the ravens held there ever escape, the monarchy will collapse and Britain will fall. For that reason, the birds have their wings clipped, and are given great care. And I say it’s an “old” superstition because it’s attributed to Charles II, although many historians are sure it’s a Victorian invention attributed to Charles II.
I have a similar superstition, only mine is about a computer. Specifically, this computer:
You’re looking at the venerable (if unsexy) Enlight 7237 case. Inside is an Abit BP6 motherboard, one of the first consumer-grade motherboards to accept multiple processors, and certainly the first to allow multiple Celeron processors. The two heatsinks (the revered GlobalWin FEP 32s) disguise two Celeron 466 mHz processors. The big green heatsink hides the 440BX chipset, arguably the best product Intel ever made. And rounding out the ensemble you have a Diamond Multimedia videocard of uncertain name carrying the NVIDIA RIVA TNT 2 chipset. There’s 512MB of assorted RAM in the machine, as well as four IDE hard drives from Western Digital, IBM and Maxtor, all connected to a Promise Ultra100 ATA card.
The computer is practically a museum of late 90s computing in a single box! I built it in 1999, and I went with the Celeron processors because at the time one could buy two Celeron 466 mHz processors for around a quarter the cost of Intel’s then top-of-the-line 933 mHz processor.
Of course, I don’t think anything will happen to me if this computer dies. And Britain will certainly not “fall” if something happens to this old computer. But my life would somehow not be the same if this old box died.
I cut my teeth on Windows NT on this box. Like a lot of folks, I got really sick of the instability of Windows 98 and wanted something better. So went on eBay and bought an OEM copy of NT Workstation 4 for around $35. I then built this box specifically to run NT. And, after a couple of weeks, I fell in love with the OS, and kept 98 on one of the hard drives just to play the occasional game, or whatever thing NT couldn’t do at the time.
I also beta-tested Windows NT 5.0 on this box, which was, of course, later renamed “Windows 2000”. I built my first home LAN using the BP6 as the anchor, and built up (and tore down) at least a dozen home networks with it. Amazingly, I also ran Windows Small Business Server 2003 on this box for several years after I moved to Charlotte. If you know me, you may remember when I owned several domain names, like ilovemadonna.com and spankingveronicamars.com. If there was an email address associated with the domain, then your emails came to an Exchange server running – slowly but solidly – on this BP6.
I also learned to hate Linux because of this box. I remember the first time I installed Red Hat 6 on this computer – everything seemed to go well, and I had everything just the way I wanted it. But then, a few days later, the power went off for just a few seconds. I turned the computer on again, and RH ran the Linux version of CHKDSK… for almost 30 hours! And when it was done, it told me that the file system was corrupt and I needed to install Linux all over again.
But there was more. A couple months passed, and I tried another distro. Only this time I couldn’t make this one (Debian? Gentoo?) find my US Robotics external 56k modem, even though I’d spent almost $100 on the modem precisely for purposes of Linux compatibility, and I’d followed the set-up instructions I found online to the letter… multiple times. And then there was the time I installed Linux and found that the screen resolution was maxed out at 1024×768 (I had a 20″ CRT at the time, which I ran at 1600×1200 in Windows). I once again went online and found the “easy”, 67-step process for installing the official NVIDIA Linux driver. And of course it didn’t work. It sounds like a cliche, I know, but I really did ask about it on a Linux forum and was answered by a bunch of condescending nerds (note to those nerds: a 67-step process for installing a video driver is 65 steps too many, and don’t pretend that it’s “better” or “easier” to install a driver in Linux than it is in Windows). I finally found a distro that worked for me – bizarrely, Corel Linux – but only then did I discover the giant flaw in Linux: sure, Linux has web browsers and office suites and instant messaging apps. But it lacks (or, at the time, lacked) the dozens of tiny apps I used every day in Windows. Things like Tag & Rename (for editing ID3 tags and filenames of mp3s), or Album Art Downloader (for downloading album art for mp3s, duh). And even if analogues for such apps did exist, they were pitiful compared to their Windows counterparts. WINE and virtual machines were in their infancy then, and were generally more trouble than they were worth. I just wanted “something that worked”, and Linux wasn’t it, and now that I’m older and have lost much of the “let’s play around with this for fun” bug, Linux still isn’t.
But there was one non-Windows operating system that I loved. It was called BeOS and it was the brain child of former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée. It was designed to work with multiple processors from the very start: back when Intel and PowerPC processors were insanely expensive, Be created their first desktop computers using four low-priced AT&T “Hobbit” processors. Be Inc. eventually got out of the hardware business, and migrated their OS to PowerPC and later Intel. And it was fucking beautiful. What OS X is today, BeOS nearly was in 1999: symmetric multiprocessing, pervasive multithreading, preemptive multitasking and a slick 64-bit journaling file system… it was all there, in one of the most beautiful GUIs ever invented:
BeOS had a lot of really well thought-out features. For example, emails (and email configuration files) were considered system files. This made BeOS email apps front-ends, which one could easily change with a couple of mouse clicks. It was a lot like alternate email and SMS on Android these days, which access a single information store, and one can switch between the stock and alternate apps at will. BeOS was also smooth as butter – perhaps the most stable OS I ever used, until Windows 7 came along.
The reason I’m writing this article was because I still use the BP6. I back up my digital music and video files every day to an external hard drive (and offsite via CrashPlan). But I’m paranoid about my music, so every few weeks I’ll boot up the BP6 (which is running XP Pro nowadays) and back up my music to a drive there, too. It had been quite a while since I’d backed up to the BP6, so yesterday I pressed the power button to do just that… and nothing happened. I’d removed a bunch of older hardware (the Linksys PAP2 I used with our former VoIP provider) from the area, so I thought I might have accidentally unplugged it. But no dice: I verified that the BP6 was plugged in to a known-good power source, but it still wouldn’t come on. I pulled it out of the dusty corner it calls home and opened her up. I had a spare Enlight power supply that I hooked up to the motherboard. I held my breath and pressed the power button… and the old girl fired up! I then physically removed the old power supply – another “venerable” product: a PC Power and Cooling 350x power supply, which cost me something like $75 back in 1999 – and tossed it in the trash. The “new” Enlight PSU was installed, and I backed up my music.
And Britain survived for another day.