Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Monday, August 3, 2020

The Object is the Advantage

NeXT marketed their workstations by letting Sun convince people they wanted a workstation, then trying to convince customers (who were already impressed by Sun) that their workstation was better.

As part of this, they showed how much better the development tools were, in this very long reality TV infomercial.

posted by Graham at 20:13  

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The hardest thing

I now have the make the hardest decision in programming. It has nothing to do with naming things or invalidating caches: rather it is which *nix to install on a computer. NextBSD and MidnightBSD both have goals that are relevant to my interests, but both seem pretty quiet.

posted by Graham at 11:48  

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Design of the Bazaar

In The Design of Design, Fred Brooks makes an interesting point about ESR’s description of the Bazaar model of Linux (and, by extension, “Open Source”) development.

Linux was actually designed in a cathedral. The design was supplied by Unix, where Linux was to be a work-alike replacement for a particular component. There was even a functional specification: the GNU utilities already existed and the kernel had to support them.

posted by Graham at 10:04  

Sunday, February 8, 2015

It’s the little things

Today I learned that I don’t even know how to Unix. I discovered that it’s possible for a POSIX system to leave PATH_MAX and similar variables undefined if it truly has no restrictions on their length.

posted by Graham at 16:37  

Saturday, January 24, 2015

UNIX-like pedantry

Some people like to refer to OS X as UNIX-like when it’s actually a UNIX. There was a time when it was UNIX-like and some people liked to refer to it as a UNIX, but it’s not now.

posted by Graham at 12:49  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

But where to go?

I agree with John Gruber here: it’s not like Apple’s stuff has become worse than a competitor’s, it’s just that it’s not as good as I remember or expect. It could be, as Daniel Jalkut suggests, rose-tinted glasses[*].

I don’t think there is a “better” competitor, except in limited senses: Solaris/IllumOS and OpenBSD both have good-quality code but are not great to use out of the box: Solaris in particular I associate with abysmal package management and flaky support from supposedly cross-platform applications that are actually only ever built and tested on GNU Debian has well-adhered free software guidelines and much better compatibility but not all GNU code is as high-quality as some alternatives. The OpenBSD copyright policy and the FSF definition of freedom are incompatible so OpenBSD doesn’t contain much GNU software GNU doesn’t contain much OpenBSD software: you get a base system that’s either one or the other and have to do work if you want bits of both. Other GNU/Linux distributions can be easier to set up and have better (i.e. any) support for non-free software and wider collections of device drivers.

So there are plenty of alternatives, many of which are good in some ways and bad in others, and all I know is that I don’t want things to be like this, without being able to say I want one of those instead. I don’t even think there will be one of those, at least not in the sense of a competitor to Apple on laptop operating systems. Why not? Because I agree with the following statement from wesolows:

from the perspective of someone who appreciates downstack problems and the value created by solving them, is that the de facto standard technology stack is ossifying upward. As one looks at each progressively lower layer, the industry’s collective willingness to contemplate, much less sponsor, work at that layer diminishes.

There’s still research in operating systems, sure, but is there development? Where are the NeXTs and Bes of today? I don’t believe you could get to a million users and have a Silicon Valley “exit” with low-level technology improvements, and so I don’t think the startup world is working in that area. So we probably won’t get anything good from there. I don’t see competition in operating systems being fruitful. If it were, Sun wouldn’t have been sold.

In fact I don’t even think that Apple’s systems are bad, they’ve just lost the “it just works” sheen. It’s just that when you combine that with the lack of credible alternative, you realise the problem is probably in expecting some corporation to put loads of resources into something that’s not going to have a great value, and merely needs to be “good enough” to avoid having any strategic penalty.

To me, that means treating the low-level parts of the technology stack as a public good. If we accept that the stack is ossifying upwards, and that EM64T, Unix, C, IP, HTTP, SQL and other basic components are going to be around essentially forever[**] then we need to treat them and their implementations as public goods and take common ownership of them. They might not be the best possible, but they are the best available. We (we the people who make systems on top of them, in addition to we the people who use systems made on top of them) need them to work collectively, so we should maintain them collectively.

[*]I particularly like his use of the phrase “Apple-like” in this context, because that term is often used to mean “my platonic ideal of Apple’s behaviour” rather than “what Apple actually does” and reminds me to be wary of my own recollections. I remember Lightning connectors being welcomed in a tweet that derided the old iPod 30-pin connector as “un-Apple-like”, despite the evidence that Apple invented, introduced the 30-pin connector and then supported it for over a decade.

[**] speaking of Sun, I use the definition of computer-forever I learned from a Sun engineer: five years or longer.

posted by Graham at 20:33  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

It doesn’t take an Oracle to see that coming

Today has largely been brought to you by nostalgia brought about by this article, reporting on a get-together of former Sun Microsystems employees.

I have never been a former Sun Microsystems employee, and of course now I never will be one. Of all the tech companies I’ve interacted with, Sun is the one I most regret not getting to work with. By the time I dealt with them, they had already put the “crash” in “dot-com crash” but there was still a feeling that they made great things. And besides, they showed that even a pony-tailed Objective-C programmer can be a tech CEO.

I recently talked about the importance of GNU projects, but plenty of other software projects were also important, and Sun had a hand in quite a few of them:

  • Bill Joy worked for them, and most of their early workstation operating systems were based on BSD Unix.
  • In fact while Apollo may have invented the idea that a single person might use a Unix computer, Sun popularised it.
  • I learned how to boot Macs by learning how to program Forth and boot Suns.
  • NFS was the beginning of the separation between your device and your documents.
  • NIS was a bit of an important step on the way to logging in anywhere (its level of baroqueness compared to OAuth has never been accurately gauged).
  • In fact, they pretty much invented cloud computing.
  • Java was quite a big thing for a while.
  • Dtrace is pretty amazing.
  • They even got into standard Unix workstation vendor capitalisation for a while.

It’s likely that much of the interesting stuff at Sun was already over by the time I could’ve worked there, and I certainly experienced a very last-minute replay of some of their history. When I was a student I ‘borrowed’ an Ultra 5 (one of their least good workstations, pretty much a PC with a sun4u SPARC innards) and a SparcStation 5 (one of their most good) to learn about Solaris, SunOS and NeXTSTEP. But it certainly feels like a lot of the future was invented there, even if they were largely following Xerox’s playbook like the rest of the industry.

So tonight, I’ll remember that my control key is in the correct place:

Sun type 5 keyboard

I’ll press L1 and A, then raise a glass to Sun and the job I never had.

posted by Graham at 22:34  

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Updating my ObjC web app on git push

I look at SignUp.woa running on my Ubuntu server, and it looks like this.

Sign up for the APPropriate Behaviour print edition!

That title text doesn’t quite look right.

$ open -a TextWrangler Main.wo/Main.html
$ make
$ make check
$ git add -A
$ git commit -m "Use new main page heading proposed by marketing"
$ git push server master

I refresh my browser.

APPropriate Behaviour print edition: sign up here!

The gsw-hooks README explains how this works. My thanks to Dan North for guiding me around a problem I had between my keyboard and my chair.

posted by Graham at 21:35  

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

How I got root on my University’s UNIX network

Back when I was a student, the way you talked to other people on the internet was via Usenet. The language we used, while still called “English”, was slightly different from the language we use today. One small example of this difference is that there was still an outside chance that the word “hacker” could be a badge of honour, an indication of one who wanted to understand the principles of a system and how they could manipulate it. People who identified themselves as hackers in this sense had their Usenet groups, and they had their identifying mark: the Glider from Conway’s game of life.

hacker emblem

I was studying Physics, because there could be no grander system to hack than the Universe. But I also hacked computers. I wanted to understand how people made them do certain things, and how I could make them do the things I wanted. Other people hacked for different reasons: they wanted to make other people’s computers do certain things, they wanted to show off what they could make computers do, they had other motivations still.

A meme that went around the Usenet groups for computer hackers was that if you truly wanted to understand computers, you should learn UNIX. So I did. I had a cheap PC in my room, and I installed Linux, FreeBSD, Darwin, and other UNIX variants to learn about UNIX. I learnt about shell scripting, and Perl scripting, and C programming. I had shell accounts on Solaris systems and NeXT systems and Tru64 systems, and I learnt about the differences and the similarities and the UNIX wars. I built a small collection of other systems (an ugly beige PowerMac, a few more PCs, and a couple of sleek Sun pizzaboxes) and learnt about TCP/IP, ICMP, HTTP, X11 and other network protocols.

Some of the hackers who wanted to make other people’s computers do things believed that the ultimate goal was to get root on someone else’s computer. If you got root, you could make their computer do whatever you wanted. It happened that even though I had root on my own computers, I managed to get root on some of the University’s computers.

I was called in to talk to a sub-department head in my department: there was someone from administration and someone from central IT too. They sat on one side of a desk, I was on the other. I was pretty nervous. I told them about what I’d learned about UNIX, and scripting, and networking, and about the root user. They asked me to show them some of what I’d learned, and there was a Mac on the desk between us which I used for this purpose.

A few days later, I got a phone call from the admin person. I had got the job, and when I started the outgoing sysadmin would give me the root password. And that’s how I got root on their UNIX network.

posted by Graham at 11:27  

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Short Objective-C on the server update

It’s been over a year since I looked at GNUstepWeb as a server platform for Objective-C development. I’ve recently had time to dig in a bit more, send the project some patches, and get the platform to a state on the Mac where I can start developing apps. That took a while, in my defence I was writing a book that I wanted to get out while it was sitting on my mind.

My next step (pardon the pun) is to set up a deployment platform on Some UNIX™, and set up post-update deployment of the apps: I already created pre-commit and post-commit hooks for development. It seems that a lot of people come through this blog looking for ObjC server info, I thought it was about time for an update :-).

posted by Graham at 21:11  
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