Sunday, April 20, 2008

Once upon a time

Once upon a time, long long ago, there were a group of computer hobbyists known as hackers. They liked the name, because it as an apt description of what they would do... find a problem, and keep hacking at it until they came up with a solution they liked.

Hackers brought the computer out of the server room, and into our workshops and offices. They would tinker with new hardware, and try to connect almost anything to a computer, just to see if they could make it work.

One of the great joys of the hacker world was the free and open sharing of programs that could take hardware and make it do something new. It was a world where you could trust that anything handed to you was crafted to make things easy to use, and you could probably get help if necessary to overcome some wrinkles in using it.

This spirit is what allowed Xmodem, CBBS, and the shareware scene of the 1980's to really take off. The personal computer was truely personal. If you wrote a new program that did something useful, you could upload it to your favorite BBS, and it would eventually find new users throughout the world, who would give you feedback and support.

Mind you, this was all before the commercialization of the internet.

Things have changed in the past 20 years, and not all of it is for the better. It used to be you could try anything, and you didn't have to worry, because you could just reboot, and be back to normal.

Now it's almost suicidal to merely hook up a PC directly to the Internet. If it doesn't have all the latest patches and firewall, it'll be compromised in an average of 15 minutes, and turned into a zombie... probably before you even get your favorite desktop wallpaper picked out.

It's important to figure out what's changed, and if it's possible to undo some of the mistakes made along the way.

The biggest changes are the complexity of the Operating Systems we all use, and the way we use them.

In 1988, you'd boot a floppy disk to get to a DOS prompt. Your rich friend might even have a hard drive, but it was treated as a big floppy disk by the applications. You would ALWAYS have a spare copy or two of your OS, and your favorite configuration, in case you messed it up, or in the far more likely event that the disk went bad, or wore out.

Experimenting with a new OS, or program was simple, as the complete state of the system was confined to a floppy disk. It was a simple as
diskcopy a: a:

to get a new complete environment as a backup.

The other great thing was that you could make a disk read only by the simple manipulation of a piece of black tape. Later this was made even easier with the little flipping bit of plastic in 1.44mb floppy disks. Since it was enforced by hardware, you could be very sure that your data was safe as long as you didn't move it.

Now we have systems that require updates just to keep from getting hijacked before you can even use them. Does it have to be this way? NO.

One possible way to turn back the hands of time is to use a USB key, and write-protect the OS partition on it. The prices are now in the $10/Gigabyte range at Target, of all places. This is PLENTY of room for an OS with everything you need to surf, edit documents, etc.

A few USB keys, and you can kiss hard drives goodbye.

This is just ONE of the possible approaches, I'll write more as time permits.

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