strangest systems I've sent email from

Swift Griggs swiftgriggs at
Wed Apr 27 13:15:32 CDT 2016

On Wed, 27 Apr 2016, Liam Proven wrote:
> I wish to apologise for this. It was unjustified and unfair, and 
> unjustly ad-hom as well.

Well, that's mighty big of you Liam. You are clearly a brilliant guy with 
a storied career and bristling with skills I only wish I had. As I read 
through your post here, I also got a lot more grit and understanding of 
why folks get as irritated as they do when I associate my bumbling college 
profs with something like LISP. It's silly of me to associate a language 
with a group of people. It's human, but still not very bright of me. LISP 
certainly has a lot of smart people advocating for it. It seems to 
represent a lost ideal or paradigm to them and it's I can see it's nasty 
of me to step on that, even if that's not my direct design to hurt them.

> My contention is that a large part of the reason that we have the crappy 
> computers that we do today [...] is not technical, nor even primarily 
> commercial or due to business pressures, but rather, it's cultural.

I share your lament.

> the culture was that Real Men programmed in assembler and the main 
> battle was Z80 versus 6502, with a few weirdos saying that 6809 was 
> better than either.

One thing that also keeps jumping out at me over and over is how I meet 
people with the same kind of experiences you describe and they are often 
much more skilled and better critical thinkers than folks I know from my 
generation or younger. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of young 
shining stars, but they just don't seem to occur with the same frequency. 
I have surmised that I am standing on the shoulders of giants going all 
the way back to folks like Grace Hopper, and that it's more and more 
difficult to grow in this field in the same way as the "old timers" (which 
for me is anyone who worked in the industry before 1989, I realize it's 
all relative). All "you guys" seemed to start out with math or EE 
background and filling in the CS parts seems to be trivial for you. I look 
up to your generation, believe it or not.

> The labs had Acorn BBC Micros in -- solid machines, *the* best 8-bit 
> BASIC ever,

I'm a bit sad those never caught on in the states. They are neat machines.

> But a new wave was coming. MS-DOS was already huge and the Mac was
> growing strongly. Windows was on v2 and was a toy, but Unix was coming

For me, as a teen in the 1990s. I associated Unix with scientists, 
engineers, and "thinkers" in general. I'd walk into somewhere to fix a 
monitor or printer (I was a bench tech for a while) and the Unix guys 
wouldn't want me near their stuff. They could fix it themselves and they 
didn't want some punk kid who knew MSDOS to touch them. Meanwhile all the 
people I didn't respect (PHBs and other business-aligned folks) used beige 
boxes running DOS. I knew I was in the wrong place.

> A new belief started to spread: that if you used C, you could get
> near-assembler performance without the pain, and the code could be
> ported between machines. DOS and Mac apps started to be written (or
> rewritten) in C, and some were even ported to Xenix.

Wasn't that kind of true, though? I've heard it said "C is nothing more 
than a macro assembler". I'm a C programmer as you might expect. I'd 
heartily agree. However, being a C programmer I also see C's warts. It's 
not big on syntactic sugar, but it does get the job done in a 
straightforward and pragmatic way. I do plenty of OO in other languages, 
but I still prefer procedural & structured coding techniques most of the 
time (as long as it effectively solves the problems). However, I'd reach 
for an OO language or heavily abuse callbacks in C if I needed to do a 

> [...] Apple merged with NeXT and switched to NeXTstep.

I still like to show non-coders how all these OSX library calls often 
*still* start with "ns" (next step).

> Now, Windows is evolving to be more and more Unix-like, with GUI-less 
> versions, clean(ish) separation between GUI and console apps, a new rich 
> programmable shell, and so on.

It reminds me of the famous statement "Those who do not learn from Unix 
are doomed to re-invent it... poorly." Windows 10 inclusion of bash seems 
to me to be a white flag on the part of Microsoft saying "You guys were 
right." Especially after pushing Powershell so hard. Of course, I'm sure 
the devils advocate would say "It's just a greater diversity in a massive 
constellation of functionality in Windows" 

> While the Mac is now a Unix box, albeit a weird one.

A very weird one. Most of my Unix zealot friends use Macs now. I still use 
the console :-) If I must, then I'll use fluxbox in X11 on top of NetBSD. 

> Commercial Unix continues to wither away. OpenVMS might make a modest 
> comeback.

Go VMS. I hope VSI can pull it off. I also hope they change their 
licensing terms to be less draconian. IMHO, that's what hurt them so badly 
in the 90s after Ken Olsen left. They wanted to LMF license every little 
bit of Tru64 and VMS. There is the hobbyist program, yes. However, you 
don't need to mess with that to download Linux, and that's still an 
accessibility gap.

> IBM has successfully killed off several efforts to do this for z Series.

In order to prevent your goose that laid the golden egg from losing her 
value (as a dead or emulated goose), you need to kill the goose hunters. 

> So now, it's Unix except for the single remaining mainstream proprietary 
> system: Windows. Unix today means Linux, while the weirdoes use FreeBSD. 
> Everything else seems to be more or less a rounding error.

Color me weirdo and rounding error since I mainly use NetBSD. It doesn't 
change the truth of your statement, though. :-)

> Even the safer ones run on a basis of C 

IMHO, C is the most portable language in the world, not Java. IIRC, many 
java runtimes are still written in C. Anytime someone makes a new 
processor one of the first things they do is port a C compiler, making a 
lot more stuff possible.

> Perl has abandoned its base, planned to move onto a VM, then the VM went 
> wrong, and now has a new VM and to general amazement and lack of 
> interest, Perl 6 is finally here.

I started learning and using Perl until all this weirdness happened and 
they bolted on OO etc... I'm not anti OO but it was all just too much more 
me. I bolted to Ruby and Lua. No disrespect to the Perl Monks, I just 
couldn't hang anymore.

> So they still have C like holes and there are frequent patches and 
> updates to try to make them able to retain some water for a short time, 
> while the "cyber criminals" make hundreds of millions.

I mostly agree, but I would like to say a few things about security issues 
and C.

* Buffer overflows and string format exploits are the biggest 
  side-effects, security wise. They aren't nearly as common as they were. 
  There is greater awareness among programmers, compilers, and scanning 
  tools now (valgrind, rats, etc). Plus the exploit writers have found 
  more fertile ground in things like SQL injection and CGI interfaces. 

* They are pretty easy to prevent most of the time, especially if you care 
  enough to check or use something like stack-smashing prevention in your 
  compiler. Also thinks like OS heap randomization has made exploits much 

* Yes, they still happen, and still *can* happen, so I don't dispute that. 

> Anything else is "uncommercial" or "not viable for real world use".

I think this is some phrase I often throw around a little too cavalier. 
Just because a language isn't popular doesn't mean I can't learn something 
from it.

> Borland totally dropped the ball and lost a nice little earner in 
> Delphi, but it continues as Free Pascal and so on.

It boggles me, actually. There were some awesome Delphi coders out there. 
I thought they'd never be derailed, because they were actually *very* 
effective coders I'd seen really powering certain businesses. Did Borland 
hork things up or what ?
> Apple goes its own way, but has forgotten the truly innovative projects 
> it had pre-NeXT, such as Dylan.

And amazing things like Amoeba, Sprite, MOSIX and others have also sort of 
dried up and died on the vine. There were some great ideas there. 

> The Lisp Machines and Smalltalk boxes lost the workstation war. Unix 
> won, and as history is written by the victors, now the alternatives are 
> forgotten or dismissed as weird kooky toys of no serious merit.

I also get that things are lost in this type of "war" the merits and 
interesting side of LISP machines etc.. It's not a good thing.

> CP/M evolved into a multiuser multitasking 386 OS that could run 
> multiple MS-DOS apps on terminals, but it died.

Hmm, was that before or after things like Desqview came along? I'd 
probably guess that's why or just the momentum DOS had for a while.

> So the hacked-together GUI for DOS got re-invigorated with an injection 
> of OS/2 code, as Windows 3. That took over the world.

Which was hard to believe for me, too. It must have been a cost thing. 
Folks could have had an Amiga, ST, Acorn, Mac, OS/2 (depending on how far 
back), a low-end Unix box, etc.. However, I guess ultimately people wanted 
whatever they could go to their local software shop and get software for. 
It still is a mystery to me why DOS was so popular.

> But the marketing men got to it and ruined its security and elegance, to 
> produce the lipstick-and-high-heels Windows XP. That version, insecure 
> and flakey with its terrible bodged-in browser, that, of course, was the 
> one that sold.

I know, man, there is no accounting for taste.

> Linux got nowhere until it copied the XP model.

Now, as you also allude to, they have started to copy Windows. Linus seems 
to have shifted his attitudes greatly. Check out what he says about GGI 
then what he says about Systemd: 


"I don't see the world in black-and-white.  I don't actually like
   Linux-only features unless they have a good reason for them, and I
   really like Linux to be a "standard" system " -Linus 1998

" I'm distrustful of projects that do not have well-defined goals, and
   well-defined interfaces.  They tend to bloat and do "everything" over
   time.  This is what gives us horrors like GNU emacs and Mach: they
   don't try to do one thing well, they try to do _everything_ based on
   some loose principle [..]" -Linus 1998

Now fast forward to 2015:

"I have to say, I don't really get the hatred of systemd. I think it 
improves a lot on the state of init, and no, I don't see myself getting 
into that whole area." -Linus 2015

I'll leave the readers to decide if that's hyperbole or there is something 
real there. It'll probably split right down the fracture point with 
systemd haters vs advocates, I suppose. It still seems pretty emblematic 
to me.

> [...] plumbing, huge complex systems, but it looks and works kinda like 
> Windows and a Mac now so it looks like them and people use it.

My theory is that once folks woke up to the potential the Internet had for 
improving their real lives, they didn't care how much they polluted the 
computing world to get access to that power, and they weren't about to 
abide having to learn anything new if they didn't have to.

> Android looks kinda like iOS and people use it in their billions. 
> Newton? Forgotten. No, people have Unix in their pocket, only it's a 
> bloated successor of Unix.

My personal opinion is that though those devices might give devs a taste 
of *some* of the power of Unix, none of those devices show the *user* any 
of the so-called "Unix philosophy" (KISS, everything is a file, etc..). 
What's also sad is that those users don't give a hoot. However, I'm not 
really surprised. I grew up in an era when computers were NOT cool for 
kids. If you liked them or wanted to play games on a computer, that made 
you a "nerd" or "geek" when those words were purely pejorative. Now those 
same people can't look up from their phones long enough to keep from 
falling down stairs, walking in front of subway trains, or uhh.... living. 
I still carry a Symbian phone since I find both Android and iOS so 
invasive and annoying. It's a strange shake up on the world I grew up in.

> The efforts to fix and improve Unix -- Plan 9, Inferno -- forgotten.

Plan 9 is still being (very slowly) developed. Ken is still involved last 
I heard. 

> We have less and less choice, made from worse parts on worse foundations 
> -- but it's colourful and shiny and the world loves it. That makes me 
> despair.

Right there with you, Liam. Someone posted today about the good parts of 
the Internet that we got with the deal. Massive communication and 
documentation are truly positive side effects for the most part. However, 
I suppose I have mixed feelings, nonetheless.

> We have poor-quality tools, built on poorly-designed OSes, running on
> poorly-designed chips.

Yes, and even though there is *more* overall documentation on the 
Internet, the docs you get with hardware and tools are nowhere near as 
good as they were in the 80s AFAIK. Nobody ships manuals with source code 
and schematics. The last I saw of that was BeOS and The Be Book. 

> Occasionally someone comes along and points this out and shows a better 
> way -- such as Curtis Yarvin's Urbit. Lisp Machines re-imagined for the 
> 21st century, based on top of modern machines. But nobody gets it, and 
> its programmer has some unpleasant and unpalatable ideas, so it's 
> doomed.

Well, when it comes to that front, I've been in this business for about 20 
years now, and I don't understand those efforts. 

> And the kids who grew up after C won the battle deride the former 
> glories, the near-forgotten brilliance that we have lost.

I see that and I can better appreciate where you are coming from when you 
couch it this way. Only the good die young. "Some will rise by sin and 
some by virtue fall." -Shakespear
> I apologise unreservedly for my intemperance. I just wanted to try to 
> explain why I did it.

I completely understand. I am sorry for associating LISP with some crappy 
experiences I had in school 20 years ago. You and other folks come from a 
noble tradition. It was wrong of me to scorn that, even for an unrelated 


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