Running Linux

Matt Welsh, Lar Kaufman

There’s an old Dutch song by Louis Davids, later re-used by Wim Kan that goes something like “Weet je nog wel, oudje, van toen“. I was irresistibly reminded of that text when I was laid up and had nothing better to do than to thumb through old Linux Journals (1995-2000) and similar.

In 1983 a shop advertised proudly that when you bought a BBC micro disk drive with them you’d get free instructions on formatting a disk! And if you’d buy a Vic 20 computer your enjoyment could only increase because there would be always another peripheral to lust after.

In 1988, rendering a 3d scene took hours on a mainframe computer. Games Machine, one of the last magazines from Newsfield, the publishers of the ZX Spectrum magazine Crash, did a special on the state of the art of graphics. And also one on child slavery in the software industry: apparently, in Great Britain it was fairly usual to grab bright teenagers and speed them up so they could code 24/7.

In 1995, Linux Journal carried letters claiming that the author would really like to use Linux, if only one little feature were implemented. Sound familiar? In this case, the ability to run SCO binaries on Linux (it was already possible with icbs). An advertisement tried to entice the money from your pockets by claiming to cut through all the bloat. Even then, people were curiously concerned about the great undefinable imprecation “bloat”. That was when Linux fit on a 20MB disk and 4MB of RAM and a 386sx at 32Mhz was enough to have a useful system for handling all your mail, news (using uucp) for several users.

So, firmly in nostalgia’s grip, I took my first edition copy of Matt Welsh and Lar Kaufman’s Running Linux from the shelf. Today the book is in its fifth edition and mostly written, I presume, by Matthias Kalle Dalheimer who now takes first billing. The fifth edition discusses KMail and the Mozilla mailer — the first edition reading email with Emacs and Xmh.

Reading it did bring back why I started playing with Linux in early 1994: the magic and glamour of UNIX — the real thing that until then I’d only met at the shell prompt of Hacktic and the machines at the place where they retrained me from a suave linguist into a nerdy keyboard maven. Sophistication. Power. Tinkering with X11 modelines until the baker opposite our house put the first batch of bread in the oven at four in the morning.

And the result: so much more useful and usable than Dos or Windows 3.11 — we had only one computer, but with my Psion Series 3, a serial lead and a terminal emulator I had a very decent terminal, so Irina and I could use the same computer at the same time.

Later, I ordered Running Linux and started learning about all the stuff that really counts: shells, tcl, tk, gdb, emacs, (vi was the mandated company editor at the place I had started working), gcc, fvwm, the X11 resource database, uucp, usenet (we used Taylor UUCP to get our mail and news until well into the 21st century).

And I got into my first, really stupid, discussion on why Linux really needed a GUI word processor that was better than Andrew… Matt Welsh even mailed me personally, telling me stop whining and start coding. He was right, of course, and at that point in time one could say “roll up your sleeves and get cracking” without being yelled at for being an elitist nerd who doesn’t realize that it’s his job to do the coding. I’ve still got my initial design somewhere. It was really, really bad. But the main reason my attempt foundered was that I didn’t understand the curses library, didn’t know C and that my 386sx with 4 mb of memory wasn’t really helping

Wonderful times!

Postscript: EZ did have a plainer and plainest keyboard shortcut: the first takes away the last style modification, the second all style modifictions on the selection. Cool concept…