Jan 142024

Just seen a video title about how Linux defeated UNIX™; it is quite hard to dispute this givennd that that Linux is alive, well, and thriving. But I would argue that it isn’t quite true.

First of all, UNIX™ is technically alive as Solaris, HP-UX and AIX are still active. And there may well be rarer versions out there – and I’m excluding operating systems that meet the trademark requirements but aren’t really “Unix” (we could argue all day about what is and what isn’t “Unix”).

But the market for UNIX™ machines is a great deal smaller than it used to be. And why is that? I would argue that whilst Linux made the transition easier, it isn’t the real reason why many organisations swapped out their high-priced machines for cheaper machines.

And that gives a bit of a clue. Whilst the high-priced machines from Sun, SGI, HP, IBM, Digital, etc. weren’t over-priced they were expensive. The hardware was built to be exceptionally reliable – for example some of the Suns I worked with could deal with a processor failure by simply turning off that processor and letting an engineer replace the board all whilst the system was up and running.

No what “killed” those expensive UNIX™ machines was virtualisation and the use of commodity hardware. If a modern server dies, the virtual servers running on it are simply migrated to a working server suffering at worst a reboot (but probably not).

Plus there was a realisation that not everything needed to be continually available.

Through The Gateway
Aug 192023

One of the strangest things that comes up in discussions of metrification, is that US traditional units (“feet”, “inches”, etc.) are referred to as Imperial units.

They’re not the same.

Correctly speaking Imperial units began with the British Weights and Measures Act of 1824 which essentially rolled up all previous legislation, repealed it, and set up a full set of standards for weights and measures. This was obviously after the US declared independence so had no effect over there.

The US units were based on traditional English units which were chiefly defined by the Exchequer Standards or the Winchester Standards (technically there were several standards that could be called “Winchester” dating back to Alfred the Great). That is an oversimplification – various “laws” (the earliest ones were simple pronouncements of the monarch) covering weights and measures are within every single century from the 10th century onwards.

The differences between US traditional units and Imperial units are subtle, but significant in the area of volume – Imperial units of volume don’t distinguish between “wet” and “dry”. A US wet pint is 473mL, a US dry pint is 550mL, and an Imperial pint is 563mL.

So the old saying “a pint’s a pound the world around,” is complete nonsense.

To throw more petrol (or gas) on the fire, both US traditional units and Imperial units are defined by legislation in terms of metric units, so as defined today, neither are proper units of measurement.

No Fun At The Fair
Aug 182023

A fair few videos are popping up at the moment responding to a description of the Bamber Bridge incident. This post is mostly adding a few points from the British perspective.

US military authorities insisted that local British authorities impose a colour bar

The British pubs co-operated and stuck up signs saying “Black troops only” – which is obviously not what the US authorities wanted.

Well of course they did – under what kind of authority do the ‘US military authorities’ have to impose a colour bar? They are after all nothing more than guests in the country, so of course British pub owners would interpret it “perversely”.

It is nice to think that this is an indication that the British of the time weren’t racist. Wrong of course – Bamber Bridge is just a couple of hours away from Hartlepool where according to legend a ship-wrecked monkey was hanged for being a French spy. The British regarded themselves as better than anyone else (so just like everybody else then), but the presence of non-whites was very low especially in a small town without a port.

And besides, the British were told to be nice to visiting US troops and nobody mentioned that it wasn’t supposed to apply to non-white US troops. And of course there is sympathy for the underdog.

What Happened Afterwards?

At least the videos I’ve seen neglect to mention what happened after the incident. Except to say that many of the black troops were court-martialed.

But what also happened was that the general in charge (Ira Eaker) placed most of the blame on the white officers and MPs, merged the unit with other trucking units, and purged the new unit of racist and inexperienced officers. Which is supposed to have improved things considerably for black troops.

British Racism?

It is easy to assume that the British attitude during the incident means that the British aren’t racist. The fact is that black people were relatively rare in Britain during WWII and were most likely concentrated in the great port cities rather than a small village in rural Lancashire.

Immigration of black British from the colonies was strongly encouraged after the war, and with their arrival racism reared its ugly head. I would argue that the racism in Britain against black people was never quite as bad as in the USA, but I’m white, so what the hell do I know?

Posts leading out to the sea.
Into The Water; Stillness and Motion
Jul 302023

Ah yes! Well the first thing to answer is what a terminal is.

A terminal is a device for communicating with text (graphics was possible but relatively rare especially in the early days) with a computer – you would type in a command in text and the computer would respond in text :-

» ls
1  2  bad-directory

Although the “terminal” is still available today in the form of a gooey program, the early terminals communicated with the computer with some form of serial port (usually RS232). The first terminals were modified teleprinters (often called “Teletypes” due to the domination of that company in the USA). These were large electromechanical devices where the display was paper – they were printing terminals.

The first terminals that displayed on a screen were very much like the printing terminals – they would “print” output from the computer on the last line of the screen and scroll for additional lines. Just like on a printing terminal except that once things scrolled off the top of the screen they were lost.

At this point in computing history, we’re just at the start of the microcomputer age; in fact one of the uses for which Intel’s second processor (the 8008) was developed was to operate as the heart of a computer terminal.

As the microprocessor controlled terminal was essentially run by software, programmers started adding in new features that would do things like clear the screen, move the cursor around the screen so you could display text anywhere you wanted.

At this point one definition of “dumb terminal” can be found – a terminal that just emulated a printing terminal was a dumb terminal; ones with additional features weren’t so dumb.

As the 1970s progressed, terminals gained more and more features and eventually some became capable of downloading software from the computer they were connected to and running that software locally. Such as (optionally) the HP 2647. Or the Bell Labs blit terminal.

Such terminals could be termed “smart” and their predecessors “dumb”. And if you notice a similarity with the somewhat later “thin clients“, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

Alternatively, some terminals (such as the IBM “green screen” terminals) operated in block mode where the terminal would allow a certain amount of editing within the terminal and send the result back to the computer a screen at a time. These necessarily had to have a certain amount of “smarts” built in, so they were smarter than character at a time terminals (thus “dumb”).

"Dumb" Terminal
A “dumb” terminal

So to an extent there is no real agreement on what a “dumb terminal” really is. Pick one that you like!

Jul 112023

Well, not “Welsh” but Brythonic. The Anglo-Saxon royal dynasty called the “House of Wessex” was supposedly founded by a certain Cerdic. The interesting thing about this character is that his name is Brythonic in origin, and of course that he defeated a Brythonic king to take his territory.

Now if we skip a few centuries to when the Anglo-Normans invaded Ireland, the Norman mercenaries were invited by a certain deposed Irish king – Diarmait Mac Murchada. A not uncommon solution for a king having been deposed was to try and raise an army to take the kingdom back, and if you have plenty of cash, mercenaries may well be part of that army.

There is no evidence for this, but what if Cerdic was a deposed Brythonic king, or a disgruntled Brythonic noble who hired a bunch of germanic mercenaries. And if he had offered them land as well as gold, that could easily explain how a bunch of Saxons ended up living here.

Which may go some way to explaining why the Brythonic people didn’t really disappear but got absorbed over the centuries.

It’s a crazy idea and there’s no evidence for it. But it’s an interesting hypothesis.

The Round Table