Wow, so about three weeks ago, one of my aunts came up to visit with my grandma and took it upon herself to go through a storage shed behind the house. Inside of which my mom kept lots of things as well, and no doubt that clutter was the main goal.
So, I was texted by my mom asking if I was interested in any of the old computer stuff she had stored in that shed behind my grandma's house. I texted back, “sure if you bring it over”, and was later presented with a few boxes of odds and ends.
One of the boxes contained an old HP Vectra 486/33m. I don't know where she got it. Now, our first “real” computer, not counting the Commodore Vic 20, was a HP Vectra 386 my mom had worked hard for and no doubt got into some debt for while she worked at HP back in 1992. I still have that computer, though through the years, I upgraded everything so it no longer had the original SCSI hard drives and exterior CD-ROM drive, but lately, I had not been able to do much with it. It had sat in another shed behind my grandma's house for about nine years when I finally retrieved it after moving into a house-from my camping lifestyle.
So, I was thrilled to have another HP Vectra, and even more thrilled when I plugged it in and it started right up, albeit into Shitdows 95. Finally, I had a chance to setup a dedicated writing station. The 486 had a SCSI adapter, an external BSR CD-ROM drive and installed adapter, and a network card, installed. Great. The hard drives were a bit small, but I have plenty of those old things around. I scrounged up a 30 gigger and a 6 gigger and quickly went about obtaining a nice old operating system for it, Debian. I chose the woody release, thinking it would be old enough to work on the limited memory and even install my old copy of WordPerfect 8 for Linux I bought brand-new in 1998.
But wait, that's not quite right. I didn't start with Woody, I started with Damn Small Linux 4.4.10, which is where the “fun” began. Oh boy! Was I on a ride through hell trying to get that puppy going. The X window system worked fine out of the box in 800x600x8, but the native 1024x768 just couldn't get going no matter what I set the pixel bits to. And the BSR CD-ROM drive, ugh, that was a straight up no-go. And the whole thing was so slow, yet I remember running Red Hat Linux back in the day on the 386 with comfortable speeds. That's when I decided to take a break.
Two weeks later I decide to resume setting this writer's station up. I had come up with the requirements I wanted out of a writing station as follows:
1) The station had to have networking to transfer my files to my state-of-the-art file server, and to provide internet for research, and to access the print server.
2) It had to run a simple word processor, not just a text editor, for formatting my work, namely WordPerfect 8 for Linux. Modern word processors are resource HOGS!
3) NO DISTRACTING computer elements such as games, and modern web browsers. For research, a simple text browser like lynx or elinks is perfect.
When I tried to run OpenOffice.org on that Damn Small Linux, I knew I was screwed! I never did wait long enough for it to load the way it wanted to. The problem with Damn Small Linux is that it is designed for small live CD installs, and is not practical for small limited resource PCs like these older X86 machines.
As it is, Damn Small Linux is based on Debian Woody. So, I got thinking, with all the changes to the base Debian system they made to make Damn Small Linux fit on a 50 MiB CD, why not just go to the source and install the full unadulterated Debian Woody release?
So, that's what I started out doing Wednesday.
That night, I was still at it. Most of the time was drained researching the hardware I had to make sure the installation went smooth. The biggest obstacle was the BSR CD-ROM. Again, no-go. The next was WordPerfect 8 for Linux. How could something work fine on the same machines and operating systems 10 years ago, but not today? I still don't get that. I also didn't get to bed that night until 5:00 AM!
Thursday, I decided to scrap Woody. It seemed it was just to new for the WordPerfect program, and even though there is plenty of online forum posts on the matter that span the one and half decades pertaining to the same problem, non of the solutions I found worked.
So, on to Hamm. Finally success. At least with the WordPerfect installation. Try as I did, most of the day, I could not get a working X windowing system, so even though I had the word processor, I had no way to use it.
My solution was to upgrade the Debian Hamm release to the next newer release, Slink. I am so used to APT, that it never dawned on me that there was a time when Debian did not use it for package management. Such is the case with Hamm. And, as I discovered, the Hamm to Slink transition was a nightmare for upgrading.
Alas, I resigned to backup my working install of WordPerfect all of which is in it's own cozy, little directory. That turned out to be the easiest thing I did in this whole fiasco It was a simple matter of tarballing the directory, installing Apache web server, and downloading the file from my file server. Easy-peasy.
Then I was confronted with the choice of which Debian release to install next. Slink was the next in line with a version number of 2.1r2 or jump to Potato with a version number of 2.2r1 and 2.2r7. I chose Debian 2.2r7 (Potato), with a resolve of installing via the network, which by the way was also the easiest step of all installations to configure and have running automatically on boot.
As it stands, for the second night in a row, it is now approaching 5:00 AM and and Potato is humming away on the package install phase. Which was cooler than the others because I did not have to deal with the horrible dselect program at all. I love apt, I knew it before I started this fiasco, but now I really appreciate it.
It's too late now to worry about trying to install WordPerfect 8 for Linux, or even fuss with the X window system, if it doesn't auto configure as Hamm didn't. I'll have to deal with it tomorrow when I get up, or sometime next week as I need a drink, and tonight is Friday, one of my two designation drinking days. The weekend begins at happy hour, and from then on, it's R&R and to hell with writing stations!
The next day, not quite happy hour. I did not sleep well that morning and was up at 11:00 AM, despite not going to bed until after 5:30 AM, crunching away on the writing station.
I discovered that X almost works in Potato and WordPerfect did install after I installed libc5. Although, I did see a quick glimpse of some error near the end about a failure pertaining to some library or another. I'll look into that if I ever get X up and running.
The issue I'm having with X is that I have altered the XF86Config file to indicate my equipment, but it's not being read at xdm startup or startx. Instead, it's starting in some kind of hidden generic mode. Using ALT+CTL+(+) I can change between to modes. And to top that off, even xterm isn't starting or accessible
A quick try at running WordPerfect, revealed that the error message I glimpsed above was in fact a problem loading libXt.so.6. The internet confirmed for me that the library was provided in Potato by the package xlib6. After installing that package, I ran another test which revealed yet another missing library, libXpm.so.4. After another quick online search, I found a forum where a disgruntled former Corel C coder indicated the required package is xpm4.7. With those two packages now installed, the only remaining error upon trying to start WordPerfect was a failure to start due to X not running. Great! That's a good sign.
Then it was on to X again. I continued my diagnostic by simply typing X then hitting the tab key. I was presented with an interesting completion option called XF86Setup, so I tried that. To my great pleasure, the program started right up in the X console and I tinkered around there for a bit confirming everything I wanted. Hitting okay, took me back to the console with a failure to start X. But, a second try cured whatever ailment It had, and this time okay brought me another window where I was then able to run a program that moved my display around a bit to fit the monitors screen. I did that, then saved the new XF86Config file, but upon restarting xdm, the system froze.
Of course, when a Linux system is hard booted, the boot process detects that the hard drive partitions that were in use had not been unmounted properly and starts the file system checker. On a 486 with 16MiB of memory and a 39GiB partition, this can take a while.
The wait was worth it! xdm started up perfect with the new configuration. Having never used xdm before, I wasn't sure just how to log in. I'm so used to the enter button corresponding to the “login” button and using tab to cycle between entry fields, that I had thought this whole time I had a broken xdm and that my next step would be fixing that or finding another display manager. The mouse, which has always worked, was no help in switching the entry fields. My next test was simply to type in the username and hit enter, as is logical, the text prompt switched to the password field and that was that.
I was then faced with a blank X screen, or desktop. Now what, I had thought I had setup xdm earlier today to automatically load a few X programs, such as xterm. They weren't there. So, as anyone with over two decades of computer use under their belt would do, I right-clicked. Nothing. I left-clicked. Ah-ha! Something happened, but just a flash. I press and held the left mouse button, and behold, a menu system.
Wow, how did I not know? Well, I have been using KDE for the 15 years on all my Linux installs. In the beginning, it was the de facto desktop environment for the distributions I was using back then, Red Had, then Mandrake. Debian was using GDE by the time I switched over to the more stable and robust distribution, but it did come with the option to install and use KDE. Anyway, I had never looked to much into just the basic X via xdm and TWM setup before.
Once I perused the menu, I started up xterm and typed in /opt/wp8.0/wpbin/xwp and voila. I now have a running WordPerfect writing station. WordPerfect loaded up real quick too! This is going to work, and I am a happy camper.
Right, so that would have been the time to move onto fine-tuning the X windowing system or setting up the printer. But is that what I did? Nope. Saturday roles along and I find myself a little disgruntled with the server, for unrelated issues. See, after happy hour, when I am feeling pretty good, and kicking back in the living room watching some television shows via Hulu or other (I do not have a television set, my server/desktop computer is in the living room and that's how I watch my shows, I love hulu.com!), it hard-boots itself. Ugh, the frustration. The indoor temperature was around 84 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale, and for some reason, when I watch a video, the motherboard or the power supply shuts the computer down.
So, I find myself, Saturday afternoon, looking through the motherboard manual for any temp settings. I'd much rather have the operating system handle shutting down as it would do it the correct way with no risk to the file system. (Although, I do use extension 4 file system to minimize damage in these very situations.) When what should I find, but a section on updating the bios. And the part that caught my eye, and attention was a reference to Freedos.
Freedos. It's been around for a while, but I've never really worked with it. Why not now, right? So I research it a bit and came up with the idea of installing Virtualbox onto the 8-core i7 server/desktop. I figured other people do stuff like this, and the main reason I never had Virtualbox running before was because all my previous computers were single cores with memory issues, they just never had the oomph needed to do something like this.
It was pretty easy to set up but the first game I tried running, Empire Deluxe, had no sound. I double checked all the setting, and researched it online and by all accounts, it should have worked. But, I did find a forum where two people had recommended using Dosbox for DOS-based games.
Now that took most of the afternoon, and I decided it was time for a brake.
The next day, I got right to work. I killed the Freedos installation, and moved right into Dosbox. Dosbox is even easier than Freedos/Virtualbox combo, and in to time, I had Empire Deluxe up and running. A single game took me into the night. Another afternoon bites the dust in the name of nostalgia. Honestly, I would prefer the windows version of that game running in wine, but the system is running Debian 7, Wheezy, and wine is broken with that release, and their asinine switch to separate 32bit and 64bit libraries. (Wine is only 32bit.)
With the afternoon gone and a surrender from Lieutenant Lee, I thought what the hell, let's see how many of the old dos programs I have will run this way. Years ago, I made a CD backup of all the files from the old computer, meaning the HP Vectra 386, so I whipped out that disc and copied the contents into my Dosbox root directory, and went to town via memory lane. It's really awesome that most of the software worked flawlessly. It was a great kick to see Blockout, that 3d Tetris-like game, 3d chess, Kings Quest, and the Commander Keen games. And the non-games like WordPerfect 5.1, Windows 3.0 (Yes, 3.0 not 3.1 is what originally came on the Vectra 386), Printshop and Dpaint2. And there's so much more too. That's going to be fun to setup my Dosbox with all the programs we used to use back then, circa 1992.
At first, when I was starting to think about Freedos, I thought I would setup the new 486 with a dos drive and run those programs on it, but really, I want it to be a dedicated writing station. But, I've decided not to fine-tune the current X. Instead, I'm going to go back to a fresh Woody install, where X worked out of the box with the xserver-xfree86 Vesa driver, install the libc5 libraries and then retry installing WordPerfect. I think that setup is more reflective of my needs. Heck, with what I learned about WordPerfect 8.0 for Linux and the libc5, I may even be able to run Etch on it. That was a good release for me. Anyway, to get the printing up and running I think I'm going to need Woody at least. My server does run Netatalk for that iMac I have, and it prints perfect. I just hate the keyboard, it would be my writing station, if I could use a better keyboard. Actually, I never tried another keyboard with it and I've had one for about two months now. That would be interesting, it runs Mac OS 9.2. I'm not a Mac fan at all, and I cannot stand not having a command prompt. But, the word processor on it would do the job. That could leave my 486 for a dedicated dos box. Hmm. Maybe I'll do that.
Then again, I'm also having second thoughts about having a dedicated writing station anyway. I've been typing this whole thing up on my newly acquired AlphaSmart 3000, and I love it. This is the first real thing I've written on it, and wholly shit I like it. The keyboard is sweat, and I love the fact I can just stop typing and set the thing down for a hours, days, and weeks plus without having to worry about turning it off. It turns itself off and saves each new character when I type it, so I never have to save anything or worry about loosing it. It runs on batteries, which last a long time according to the specifications. The only thing is, it's not a word processor, just a fancy USB keyboard with memory. It saves just unformatted text. It goes great with a desktop computer and any word processor application.
I'm fine with any shortcomings the AlphaSmart my have. But now that I have typed out my thoughts, I know I still need a dedicated writing station, if for not the original writing then at least for the editing. That's the part that takes the longest time and requires the most dedication.
The best thing I ever owned for writing is the Bother WhisperWriter WP6500J. I still have it, and in fact it's the whole reason I'm going through so much agony over setting up a writing station. You see, it stopped recognizing the floppy drive. That was how I had to transfer my files to the computer. It's just as well, since modern computers don't have floppy drives any more. But boy, I sure miss it. I bought it at Sears in Pocatello Idaho back in 1998. I wrote my first novel on it. With that unit, I never needed a computer to edit, format, or print.
After writing this much on the AlphaSmart 3000, I'm also considering getting the Neo Dana, or whatever the latest generation of the AlphaSmart 3000 is. I wonder if they do formatting?